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Making it Relevant: Engaging Emerson

July 17, 2009

“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

Whether I like it or not, the classics have no value just because we consider them classics. Sure, they deal with timeless questions that we’re still asking today, but why not just ask what people today are thinking? Ralph Waldo Emerson was a man who was fed up with the dogma of the time. People in his day just read the classics, considered them authoritative, and derided everything else.

Well, Emerson thought that was totally lame. He thought people shouldn’t be so obsessed with the classics that they forgot to come up with their own answers to the great questions. So he took a break from hanging out in nature to deliver a totally awesome speech called The American Scholar.

In this profound challenge to the intellectual establishment of our country, Emerson reminded us that the real answers to our greatest questions lie within our own experience. It does no good, he held, to idealize the experience of others for its own sake. We must rely on our own intuition and our own minds to make meaning and find the answers we need.

Emerson wasn’t telling us not to read or to study the classical texts, but to be wary of the kind of thinking that stunts our minds when we they should continue to grow. The American Scholar has stood the test of time because it rouses us out of complacency and encourages us to take a good, hard look at the food we’ve been nourishing our minds on.

All the same, it looks like the joke’s on you, Ralph. You’ve become a classic! You spent all that time urging people to get over the old tomes, and now you are one. Looks like you were so wise and well-respected, people just had to preserve you instead of looking boldly into the future.

This weekly series (by Joshua Eskew, a senior at Marian College studying English and communication, and an intern with the Indiana Humanities Council) will help expose the relevance of studying the classics.

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