A Liberal Education in Late Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson – American transcendentalist, writer and orator – was born two hundred sixteen years ago today, May 25th. Sean Ross Meehan celebrates Emerson’s legacy and longevity by taking a closer look at Emerson’s neglected role in higher education reform in the late nineteenth century.

(Cropped) Illustration of “the transparent eyeball” concept in “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Illustration by Christopher Pearse Cranch, ca. 1837-1839. Source: Wikimedia

As a leading voice of transcendentalism, a poet, essayist, and the first public intellectual in the United States, Ralph Waldo Emerson is widely recognized as an influential writer and thinker. However, our understanding of Emerson has for too long been limited to his earlier and more widely-taught essays of the 1830s and 1840s, works such as Nature and “Self-Reliance.” Readers remain hampered by the assumption that Emerson was, as a poet and philosopher known for esoteric thinking and the sanctity of individualism, uninterested in public matters. My book challenges that assumption by focusing on Emerson’s later work during and after the Civil War, and, in particular, his interest in higher education reform, a prominent public issue of the day. Rather than removed, Emerson remained engaged in educational matters. More specifically, Emerson argued for the values of traditional liberal education, doing so in a typically provocative manner: at the very point that those values, and the liberal arts college housing them, were being questioned by calls for a new, more practical education.

In the 1860s and 1870s, the modern American research university emerged from, and indeed, thoroughly transformed the traditional college. The new university trained its focus on disciplinary specialization. Inspired by the model of the German university, Lehrfreiheit and Lernfreiheit, or freedom to teach and to study, largely replaced the college’s prescribed curriculum in what the historian Bruce Kimball calls the “rhetorical liberal arts.” Where did Emerson find himself amidst this transformation? Although I began my research looking more broadly at Emerson and education, I turned my attention more specifically to Emerson’s idea of a university when I realized that this question was not being asked, let alone answered.

To be sure, Emerson was interested in certain elements of the reforms, especially in the enlargement of study and opportunity promised by the addition of electives. Indeed, Emerson was claimed by Harvard President Charles W. Eliot to be the primary inspiration for his transformational curricular reforms and, as a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, Emerson sat in the audience for Eliot’s inauguration—as legend has it, smiling and assenting. However, Emerson also expressed a considerable, countervailing interest in the older, rhetorical model of liberal education that has been lost to that legend. In lectures and journals he reiterated an underlying concern about the new university’s replacement of common learning with departmentalized specialization. On several occasions in lectures and his notebooks, Emerson recited the ideal of Cicero’s commune vinculum, the common bond of liberal learning.

R. Waldo Emerson, 1901. Image credit: Library of Congress

In a manner of speaking, my motivation was to renew this older, educational Emerson. My work reconsiders Emerson’s influence upon several important intellectual and cultural figures of the late nineteenth century, all with ties to Emerson and his thought. I reframe our understanding of that influence in terms of learning and rhetoric, specifically the values of liberal education that Emerson associated with what he called “the idea of a college.”

I reexamine Emerson’s relation to the philosopher and psychologist William James, one of Eliot’s earliest hires at Harvard; the poet Walt Whitman, who famously began his literary career by claiming Emerson as his “master”; the transformational Harvard president Charles W. Eliot; and finally W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the leading public intellectuals of the twentieth century. Du Bois was an advocate for extending traditional liberal education to new colleges established for African Americans after the Civil War; he was also one of James’s students at Harvard, where he eventually became its first African American PhD. A core concept I observe in Emerson’s pedagogy goes by the name “metonymy.”  Somewhat unconventionally, Emerson characterized as his rhetorical trope of tropes the figure metonymy—indeed, he referred to it as the figure useful for all thinking and conversation, not just writing. This focus on metonymy is another facet of neglect in late Emerson that I also trace throughout his intellectual relations to James, Whitman, Eliot, and Du Bois.

What, then, might we learn from Emerson’s older and unconventional rhetorical idea of a college that is of relevance for higher education today? To adapt the line from Emerson, where might we find ourselves? With Emerson’s guidance, we might remember the educational value of patience, recognizing, as he did, the ongoing, diacritical presence of the old in the new. The dynamic relation between old and new is what scholars study, no matter the discipline; scholars work toward new knowledge by way of, and in response to, what we already know. In the very grammar of our sentences, we move from known to new.

One hundred fifty years ago, facing demands for a brand new, specialized, university education that would replace—the language today is “disrupt”—the old models, Emerson offered future educators insight and caution. He argued that a truly distinctive college education would stand out most not by rejecting its past but by reclaiming its foundational models anew. Exactly one hundred fifty years after Eliot’s inauguration as president at Harvard in 1869, higher education, the humanities, and perhaps even more broadly, civic life, all remain under duress, driven further into distraction by the demands for innovation and a desire for disruption. At every turn there is a suspicion of the old by whatever seems to be new; to comport with our current technologies, education’s obsolescence, it has been argued, must also be assumed. In his Phi Beta Kappa address at the Harvard commencement in 1867, on the verge of the new university, Emerson reminded his audience, and reminds us still, that all of our cultural inventions are only as new and original as the mind that thinks them. As Emerson put it, compressing the provocation into a six-word enthymeme, “Nothing is old but the mind.” I doubt that such a claim could be used to sell us the newest version of the latest device we didn’t know we needed. The claim does echo, however, with the robustness of a certain kind of learning that Emerson had in mind. I think it is still worth hearing.


This guest post was written by Sean Ross Meehan, Associate Professor of English at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.

A Liberal Education in Late Emerson
Readings in the Rhetoric of Mind
by Sean Ross Meehan
Hardback / 9781640140233 / £56.25 or $67.50

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