Thursday, October 22, 2009


Over the weekend I had to teach a lesson at church about self-reliance and care for the needy. To prepare (for truth be told all preparation is putting off the performance) I spent a bit of time re-reading Emerson's Self-Reliance.

Emerson is one of those writers to whom I keep returning because his work annoys me. (Thoreau is another.) And Self-Reliance is full of annoying ideas, many about education in one way or another.

Take this line: "There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide..." Now Emerson isn't talking specifically about formal education. But this notion, that education is about finding the ways that one is a unique individual, is one that leads to all sorts of selfish, relativist pap. (Perhaps best exemplified by the oft-repeated schoolhouse fib: "You can become anything you want.")

But the rest of the sentence turns the sentiment around: "...
that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till."

All of the sudden Emerson is calling for education to do something much more significant--to help people discover their uniqueness by working to uncover connections to their surroundings. Looked at this way, Emerson is describing how much can be learned by rejecting generalities in favor of specifics, even if those are specifics about a place that may not seem important. Studying abroad may be important; but studying home certainly is.

And then, later in the essay, this: "
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." What might we learn, how might our public culture be better, if we didn't derive our thoughts and actions from what we have always done? (And how much harder would it be to grade papers without being able to write "you contradict yourself" in the margins?)

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