Emerson’s Scholar Now

November 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Marilynne Robinson, novelist, essayist, and teacher at the University of Iowa, recently delivered the Presidential Address at Stanford’s Humanities Center. Her title and the topic for that address demonstrates her deep interest in Emerson: “The American Scholar Now.”

I haven’t read or seen the lecture; I don’t think a copy is available yet. But judging from the summary, I take it that Robinson means to forward Emerson’s example of critical engagement with education: Emerson not just as a scholar from an earlier period in America, but a scholar involved in the public and critical mission of higher education in America–alternately excited by its mission but concerned with its prospects. As we finish up our readings in Emerson with another address he makes at a college, the 1861 “Celebration of Intellect” (delivered at Tufts in 1861), we can think about how Emerson’s vision of the scholar translates into American culture twenty-five years later, at the beginnings of the Civil War. What’s different in his approach to intellect here? What sounds and seems familiar? Is there a critique in Emerson of the kind of utilitarianism in education that concerns Robinson?

And with our final projects, we can follow Robinson’s lead–which is also Emerson’s–and ask how and where Emerson translates into our thinking as scholars today, and what we as scholars in the college–standing by our order, as Emerson puts it in “Celebration of Intellect”–can put that translation to work, transform that genius into practical power.

Think of the final project, then, as “Emerson’s Scholar Now.” As you turn to working on the project proposal and your further reading for the annotated bibliography, continue to think about Lawrence Buell’s complex insight regarding the ways that readers have learned from Emerson. How do we read Emerson the way he wants books to be read? Or to expand slightly to the context Robinson and Emerson also have in mind, how do we learn from Emerson in the ways that are consistent with his vision of education?

 

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