Education and Experience

Emerson wrote this in "The American Scholar":

The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and, after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men whom this spectacle most engages. He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find, — so entire, so boundless. Far, too, as her splendors shine, system on system shooting like rays, upward, downward, without centre, without circumference, — in the mass and in the particle, nature hastens to render account of herself to the mind.

In these words, we find an early compelling account of the idea of experiential education. I'm sure it sounded as strange to Emerson's listeners as it does to us today to think that the scholar is the one most engaged with the wild spectacle of nature. The new scholar that Emerson dreamed would be like nature: "without beginning, without end...circular power returning into itself." So different from the notion that we have today, that the scholar must attach himself to his idea, no matter the cost, as if experience were a maelstrom and his thought a life-raft.

But has the stream of experience grown so violent and unpredictable that we are afraid to let loose of our idea-rafts? Is it possible to imagine a scholar who does not advocate a view, but instead demonstrates a mind as wide and as flexible as experience itself? We would, perhaps, say that such a scholar lacked intellectual rigor or integrity, but it is possible to make a distinction between rigor and the rigor mortis of academic prose.

My dissertation project worries about what we mean when we say we ought to engage experience. Emerson's experience here is wonderful, romantic, inspiring--but a far cry from our experience. Do we see stars or traffic lights? Sunsets or TV sets? Cycles of power or the daily grind? Men and women conversing or pundits preaching? We need a different aesthetic: perhaps Beckett or Foster Wallace...Emerson is too romantic--causing us to daydream, rather to engage. How would "The American Scholar" be written today? What words would inspire us to a richer life of the mind, today--one that does not build life rafts, but life itself?


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