Emerson on Education

Written by Kerry Ellard on December 13, 2021

Though he worked briefly as a schoolteacher, Ralph Waldo Emerson rarely gave concrete teaching advice. As he believed in lifelong learning, formal or informal, Emerson rarely spoke about the logistics of schooling, sticking to more general principles. His philosophy of education, like all his other philosophies, can only be gleaned from reading through his essays and lectures and synthesizing relevant remarks.

That’s exactly what his son did, following Emerson’s death in 1882. Edward Emerson compiled excerpts of his father’s remarks on childhood education, mostly given as commencement addresses. One of the first excerpts, focused on the unique history of education is New England, is especially interesting. Emerson referred to New England as “the country in the world where is the freest expenditure for education,” indicating how useless it was to generalize about American education before the late 19th-century. Since colonial times, possibly for the first time ever, New England had decided “that the poor man, whom the law does not allow to take an ear of corn when starving, nor a pair of shoes for his freezing feet, is allowed to put his hand into the pocket of the rich, and say, ‘You shall educate me, not as you will, but as I will.’” He noted that this was such an important decision that it “might have been resisted as the most radical of revolutions.”[1]

Emerson’s individualistic philosophy was shaped by the same cultural attitudes that made this radicalism acceptable. Educating the masses had generally been considered dangerous because it might inspire them to challenge the ruling class—teaching slaves to read was later banned in the American south due to similar fears. But the Puritan ruling class believed that in the New World, the stability of their small, experimental community was served by having a populace that could investigate the nature of right and wrong for itself, mainly by referring to the Bible directly. They believed relying on individual conscience was the best way to secure their values and religious authority.

Like Dewey, Emerson emphasized the individual need and ability to see “things in their causes, all facts in their connection.” Unlike Dewey, he conceived of this happing not through social interaction, but by observing the patterns of Nature, which all minds had the ability to discern and subsequently communicate about. (“By the permanence of Nature, minds are trained alike, and made intelligible to each other.”) As his Puritan ancestors used Biblical morality as an organizing principle, Emerson used Nature, and man’s God-given ability to understand Creation. This faith in every person’s judgment made him open to trusting democracy, just as the Puritans’ faith in human conscience made them open to trusting universal education.

This is one of many passages that contains some concepts that might be called ‘Deweyan’ or ‘progressive’, but Emerson’s overall ethos is different, in line with the themes of Self-Reliance, to which his faith in democracy was secondary.

“Every man has a trust of power—every man, every boy a jurisdiction, whether it be over a cow or a rood of a potato-field, or a fleet of ships, or the laws of a state. And what activity the desire of power inspires! What toils it sustains! How it sharpens the perceptions and stores the memory with facts. Thus a man may well spend many years of life in trade. It is a constant teaching of the laws of matter and of mind. No dollar of property can be created without some direct communication with nature, and of course some acquisition of knowledge and practical force. It is a constant contest with the active faculties of men, a study of the issues of one and another course of action, an accumulation of power, and, if the higher faculties of the individual be from time to time quickened, he will gain wisdom and virtue from his business.”

This is the same general idea behind Dewey’s Laboratory Schools. At other points, Emerson sounds more like an early childhood theorist, but with a greater emphasis on individual power than was common among progressive educators. What’s clear is that he believed in developing the unique potential of every individual, no matter what that might be.

“Education should be as broad as man. Whatever elements are in him that should foster and demonstrate. If he be dexterous, his tuition should make it appear; if he be capable of dividing men by the trenchant sword of his thought, education should unsheathe and sharpen it; if he is one to cement society by his all-reconciling affinities, oh! hasten their action! If he is jovial, if he is mercurial, if he is a great-hearted, a cunning artificer, a strong commander, a potent ally, ingenious, useful, elegant, witty, prophet, diviner--society has need of all these. The imagination must be addressed.”

But Emerson showed little interest in formal educational systems, indicating exasperation with reformers even in the mid-nineteenth century by saying that “A treatise on education, a convention for education, a lecture, a system, affects us with slight paralysis and a certain yawning of the jaws.” One of the most highly educated men of his time, both formally and informally, he had no opposition to schooling or book-learning, but believed it had to be done with the right attitude. Emerson criticized the current form of education in New England in ways that overlapped with the later Progressive Era critiques.

“We do not teach them to aspire to be all they can. We do not give them a training as if we believed in their noble nature. We scarce educate their bodies. We do not train the eye and the hand. We exercise their understandings to the apprehension and: comparison of some facts, to a skill in numbers, in words; we aim to make accountants, attorneys, engineers; but not to make able, earnest, great-hearted men.”

Emerson also emphasized the value of play and personalization. However, he departed from the normal Progressive Era view by not having a primarily social, efficient, or collectivist view of education:

“The great object of Education should be commensurate with the object of life. It should be a moral one; to teach self-trust; to inspire the youthful man with an interest in himself; with a curiosity touching his own nature; to acquaint him with the resources of his mind, and to teach him that there is all his strength, and to inflame him with a piety towards the Grand Mind in which he lives. Thus would education conspired with the Divine Providence.”

Dewey noted more than once, “we lie, as Emerson said, in the lap of an immense intelligence,” and this is the view he was referring to (although Dewey’s interpretation of the source of that intelligence seemed to differ).

Emerson was also much less hostile to traditional forms of learning than most progressives, and counseled against overcomplication and bureaucratic systems. As was his general tendency as a philosopher, he seems to effortlessly transcend the usual dichotomies:

“Nor are the two elements, enthusiasm and drill, incompatible. Accuracy is essential to beauty. The very definition of the intellect is Aristotle's: "that by which we know terms or boundaries." Give a boy accurate perceptions. Teach him the difference between the similar and the same. Make him call things by their right namesIt is better to teach the child arithmetic and Latin grammar than rhetoric or moral philosophy, because they require exactitude of performance; it is made certain that the lesson is mastered, and that power of performance is worth more than the knowledge. He can learn anything which is important to him now that the power to learn is secured: as mechanics say, when one has learned the use of tools, it is easy to work at a new craft.

…Letter by letter, syllable by syllable, the child learns to read, and in good time can convey to all the domestic circle the sense of Shakespeare. By many steps each just as short, the stammering boy and the hesitating collegian, in the school debates, in college clubs, in mock court, comes at last to full, secure, triumphant unfolding of his thought in the popular assembly, with a fullness of power that makes all the steps forgotten.

But this function of opening and feeding the human mind is not to be fulfilled by any mechanical or military method; is not to be trusted to any skill less large than Nature itself.You must not neglect the form, but you must secure the essentials. It is curious how perverse and intermeddling we are, and what vast pains and cost we incur to do wrong. Whilst we all know in our own experience and apply natural methods in our own business -- in education our common sense fails us, and we are continually trying costly machinery against nature, in patent schools and academies and in great colleges and universities.

The natural method forever confutes our experiments, and we must still come back to it. The whole theory of the school is on the nurse's or mother's knee. The child is as hot to learn as the mother is to impart. There is mutual delight….The boy wishes to learn to skate; to coast, to catch a fish in the brook, to hit a mark with a snowball or a stone; and a boy a little older is just as well pleased to teach him these sciences…Nature provided for the communication of thought by planting with it in the receiving mind a fury to impart it. 'Tis so in every art, in every science. One burns to tell the new fact, the other burns to hear it…Happy the natural college thus self-instituted around every natural teacher…

A rule is so easy that it does not need a man to apply it; an automaton, a machine, can be made to keep a school so. It facilitates labor and thought so much that there is always the temptation in large schools to omit the endless task of meeting the wants of each single mind, and to govern by steam. But it is at frightful cost. Our modes of Education aim to expedite, to save labor; to do for masses what cannot be done for masses, what must be done reverently, one by one: say rather, the whole world is needed for the tuition of each pupil.”

In the end, Emerson’s advice was simple: “Have the self-command you wish to inspire…See what they need, and that the right thing is done.” He confessed himself “utterly at a loss in suggesting particular reforms in our ways of teaching,” warning that “no discretion that can be lodged with a school-committee, with the overseers or visitors of an academy, of a college, can at all avail to reach these difficulties and perplexities.” However, this was not cause for despair, because “they solve themselves when we leave institutions and address individuals.” It was “simple” for any person of character to find a way to “keep the grammar, reading, writing and arithmetic in order”—to make sure the basics are conveyed—Emerson insisted. Beyond that, here was his advice to teachers:

“If you have a taste which you have suppressed because it is not shared by those about you, tell them that. Set this law up, whatever becomes of the rules of the school: they must not whisper, much less talk; but if one of the young people says a wise thing, greet it, and let all the children clap their hands. They shall have no book but school-books in the room; but if one has brought in a Plutarch or Shakespeare or Don Quixote or Goldsmith or any other good book, and understands what he reads, put him at once at the head of the class. Nobody shall be disorderly, or leave his desk without permission, but if a boy runs from his bench, or a girl, because the fire falls, or to check some injury that a little dastard is indicting behind his desk on some helpless sufferer, take away the medal from the head of the class and give it on the instant to the brave rescuer. If a child happens to show that he knows any fact about astronomy, or plants, or birds, or rocks, or history, that interests him and you, hush all the classes and encourage him to tell it so that all may hear. Then you have made your school-room like the world. Of course you will insist on modesty in the children, and respect to their teachers, but if the boy stops you in your speech, cries out that you are wrong and sets you right, hug him!”

1. All quotes in this piece are taken from https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/education.html. “This essay was put together after Emerson's death from a number of commencement and similar addresses he had made. It appears in The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Edward Emerson.”

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.

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