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The American Scholar

September 14, 2011

At some point during undergrad, I stumbled upon an Emerson speech called “The American Scholar” and decided to read it as a kind of “kick-off” to the school year. I liked it so much that I resolved to read it every year since. Which is a good thing, because every year I forget what it was that Emerson was telling me the year before.

But not this year! This year is different! I’ve discovered a foolproof technique that will make scraps of information stick to the brain like Michele Bachmann talking points.

It comes from EDUCASE, an academic technology professionals’ organization, which puts out mini-briefs on new technologies titled “7 Things You Should Know About…[whatever it is you should know about]”. This is obviously a stroke of sheer genius because, as I learned in PSY 1001 last year (yeah, took me a while to finally fit that in), human beings are virtually incapable of remembering things in chunks larger than seven. It just ain’t gonna happen. And even seven can cause some head-scratching.

* * *
So, I’m going to capitalize on that as a leitmotif and apply it to Emerson. In that spirit, here’s my rendition of Emerson’s “7 Things You Should Know About Being an American Scholar”:

1) Americans rock at the pragmatic sciences, but Europeans laugh at us because they think we’re crappy philosophers. Show them they’re wrong!

2) People can either be drones and slaves to their work, or they can be vibrant, whole beings with broad scope and curiosity. Don’t be the former.

3) True scholars will look to nature, to history, and to concrete action as their sources of inspiration.

4) If you want to be a scholar, stop sitting around reading books and just go DO stuff.

5) Maybe, if you’re bored or depressed or uninspired one day, it’s okay to just sit down and read a book. But after that, you’d better pick yourself up and go DO stuff.

6) If you talk a lot instead of just going and DOING stuff, you’ll come off as a phony.

7) Formal institutions of learning can be kind of “blah”. We need to make them more exciting so we can “set the hearts of youth on flame”. (Metaphorically speaking, of course.)

* * *
And, in the spirit of completeness and modernization, here’s my response of “2 Things Emerson Should Know About Being an American Scholar”:

1) You make scholars sound like lone-suffering sailors shipwrecked in a sea of idiocy and paddling along with nothing but the beacon of their own noble brains to guide them. Kinda hyperbolic. Cut the “power words” and masculine diction. It makes you sound like you’re trying to resolve some personal issues from all those years you got picked on on the playground for being a “nerd”.

2) With all your “rugged individualist” characterizations of the Scholar, you say nothing about the process of creating scholarship in community. Today’s problems are so networked and complex that we have to confront them with collaborative knowledge. We can’t all just go our own noble, solitary scholarly ways and have everything just be cool. You didn’t have global warming back in your day, so I suppose I can excuse the oversight. Still, something to think about.

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