Emerson: philosophy of the street

September 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Emerson’s “American Scholar” has long been thought as calling for a break with England and English literature–the symbolic beginnings of an American literature. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a contemporary of Emerson, referred to it famously as America’s “intellectual declaration of independence.” That received viewed tends to emphasize that Emerson’s argument is with English writers. I would argue, in fact, that his concern is with American schools and habits of learning that have (already by 1837) become institutionalized and deadened. For me, this is an argument about American education.

I hear echoes of this argument in Gerald Graff’s notion of “Hidden Intellectualism”: that there is a ‘vernacular’ or ‘street smarts’ that students have and that can be transformed by schools into ways of understanding academic writing and thinking–specifically, how we argue. Emerson gets into this sense of the vernacular at the end of the address–referring to the low, the familiar, the common. All of that, I suspect, is language that would have interested some of the graduating students (Thoreau, in fact, was one of them, though he most likely wasn’t in the audience–had already left) and ruffled the collars of some of the professors in the audience. I recently wrote a piece exploring some of Emerson’s interest in education (including a lecture he gives at a new, progressive school the month before he gave “American Scholar” at Harvard), Education after an Earthquake; if interested in this line of inquiry (Emerson’s vision of education and learning), we can talk more about a possible final project in this area later in the semester.

What about the view of the self/individual in Emerson’s vision of schooling? An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education considers the issue of academic scholarship and autobiographical perspectives. A recent book by Cynthia Franklin, Academic Lives, explores some contemporary examples of academic criticism written from a personal perspective; and also considers how such autobiographical perspectives have traditionally been shunned in the academy.

Emerson isn’t cited. But the author could have cited him, and easily. In fact, I think the reclamation of ‘scholar’ that Emerson is already after in the 1830s (and still at issue today) is to rethink the scholar as “first person.” Think of the passage from “Divinity School,” that comes out of the journal from the summer of 1837, and shows up in his “Greene Street School Address.” The preacher (wonderfully named Frost) he hears and calls a cold ‘formalist,’ he gives his audience no sense that he has actually lived–is less real than the snow storm outside. In the terms of “American Scholar,” this is not the way to “learn grammar,” the dictionary that is not related to life and the near and familiar.

I wonder about your own experience with autobiographical criticism and with hidden intellectualism. In what ways have the academic and the vernacular come together? Have you been taught to keep them separate: never to use “I”? Do you think Emerson is on to something, here? Does schooling, or rather, learning, need to give more thought to the “philosophy of the street”?


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