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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Lesson from Ralph Waldo Emerson


August 31 marked the anniversary of Emerson’s “The American Scholar” speech, in which he laid out the ideals of transcendentalism.  Here is what The Writer’s Almanac had to say about the speech:
It was on this day in 1837 that Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author) delivered a speech titled "The American Scholar" to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University.
The speech was the first time he explained his transcendentalist philosophy in front of a large public audience. He said that scholars had become too obsessed with ideas of the past, that they were bookworms rather than thinkers. He told the audience to break from the past, to pay attention to the present, and to create their own new, unique ideas.
He said: "Life is our dictionary ... This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it ... Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds."
The speech was published that same year. It made Emerson famous, and it brought the ideas of transcendentalism to young men like Henry David Thoreau. Oliver Wendell Holmes later praised Emerson's "The American Scholar" as the "intellectual Declaration of Independence."

Emerson gave this speech as America was still discovering itself, only two generations after the Revolution and in the first generation of the Industrial Revolution.  At the same time, the first American scholars were returning from Europe, after earning their doctorates at the new research universities in Germany.  They became academic leaders here at home and, in the process, helped to invent the American college and university as we know it today—as a community dedicated to the threefold mission of research, teaching and service.  It was a time for looking forward and, as Emerson argued, a time for scholars to be actively engaged in the world.  The true scholar,” he said, “grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power. “
            Emerson’s challenge is especially important to today’s generation of scholars and higher education administrators—and public policy makers whose decisions will affect the future of higher education for the coming generations.   This issue was the focus of a previous post on this blog, Building the Future of Public Higher Education.  Here are some additional thoughts inspired by Emerson’s speech:
            First, a reminder that, in the 177 years since Emerson’s speech, the world has changed.   The Industrial Revolution is over; we are living through an Information Revolution that is raising issues that are new to society.  Some are the residue of the industrial period.  Other are unintended consequences of how we have conducted society since the new era began in the 1950s.  Many of these issues are global in nature.  Some examples:  reduced grain production in the face of increased need for food, international disease outbreaks, a globally dispersed business supply chain, the growing likelihood of environmental disaster, the rise of social media and virtual communities.
            As mentioned in the previous posting, these challenges affect all three of the core missions of higher education: research, teaching, and engagement.  The earlier posting suggested some responses.  Here is an additional thought on the research role stimulated by Emerson’s speech:
            The ideal of academic freedom, inherent in Emerson’s philosophy, has been with us for a long time now.  Today, that ideal is being challenged by the increasing power of corporations in our public life, along with the decreasing state government investment in public education.  Many of the issues that we are facing as a society are unforeseen consequences of innovation in the corporate sector or have the potential to undermine corporate investments, which suggests that corporations will be unlikely to fund research in these arenas.  How we maintain (or, perhaps, recover) independence of academic research in this environment is a critical strategy question. 
            One strategy is for educators to band together to create a community that can raise money from new sources.  This can happen at the discipline level—creating interdisciplinary communities that combine academic expertise and attract new funding—or at the institutional level.  With that in mind, a strategy might be for a family of institutions, perhaps through their national association, to identify critical societal issues for which interdisciplinary research is needed and then to hold a series of national/international conferences on that issue in order to create new research ideas and, ultimately, to attract foundations to the new research agenda.
            Given the importance of globalization in today’s environment, another strategy would be to create international venues that bring faculty together to share ideas and develop synergies.  The Worldwide University Network  is a good example of this and how it can stimulate new teaching as well as new research.
            It is critical that public colleges and universities actively seek out ways to ensure that faculty have the academic freedom needed to tackle the issues facing our society and to turn their research into new teaching and new service to society.