I have maintained, for some time now, my firm opinion that I do not want to graduate. Being a student has always been what I’m good at. I go to my classes, I get good grades, and I’m rewarded at the end of the semester by a marginally increased GPA. It’s a safe cycle, and one that I’ve grown quite comfortable with. But at some point, probably halfway through my junior year, the realization hit me that my college years were, and are, coming to a close. Graduation, an event that has seemed so far away, and so unreal that it has been almost dreamlike in that regard, is finally visible—looming, in fact—on the horizon. It’s hard to explain why, exactly, I’m not more excited to start the life these past four years have been preparing me for. Being nervous about this transition would be understandable, and normal, but truthfully, I don’t feel nervous—I feel apathetic. Apathetic about starting some career, apathetic about working years to pay off my student loans, apathetic about life in general. I like being a student, and I think I am unsure of who I will be once “student” is no longer my identity. It was fitting, then, that I was assigned to read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” in the last English class I am taking as an undergraduate. Originally given as a speech at a commencement ceremony, the piece is, in my opinion, as relevant today as it was to college students graduating in 1837. In particular, Emerson addresses one concern that seems to withstand the test of time; that is, how to be a successful scholar outside the halls of academia, amidst what we might call real life.
During my last four years as an English major, I have learned to examine things that are often overlooked, such as the finer points of literature and the critical issues they raise. I have learned to crave knowledge and seek understanding. In essence, I have learned how to be a scholar in the way that only those who pursue the humanities can be. Our expertise exists in a space where questions are more important than answers, where the truth is always ambiguous; our studies are rooted in a gray area that traverses the black and white logic of math and science. Many people question the practicality of studying English, or Philosophy, or Religion, as after college these degrees are not so directly applicable as is, say, learning anatomy to become a doctor. Emerson addresses this issue in his speech, saying, “So called ‘practical men’ sneer at speculative men, as if because they speculate or see, they could do nothing” (541). Emerson is probably using the terms “practical men” and “speculative men” to mean “non-scholars” versus “scholars;” however, this polarity also applies to students of the humanities versus people who scoff at the humanities and see merit only in studying definitive math and science. We might even say that the “speculative men” of the nineteenth century are the English majors of today—they’re the thinkers, the philosophers; they’re the people who want to learn how to think instead of majoring in what will make them the most money. Nonetheless, even in nearly two hundred years since Emerson’s speech, the public opinion that the humanities have little use outside the ivory tower has remained largely unchanged. Indeed, I feel I am justified in saying that most every present-day English major has been met with scorn or at least dubiety when telling someone what he or she studies.
English, Philosophy, and other similar majors focus on unpacking deep and complex issues. In my experience, people tend to assume that this activity has no practical use—and by extension, that students of the humanities have no place in the practical world. Emerson evidently had a similar experience: “There goes in the world a notion that the scholar should be a recluse . . . unfit for any handiwork or public labor” (541). The notion of the reclusive scholar might today be adapted and extended into the phenomenon of the perpetual student, also known as the “career student.” That is, someone who obtains degree after degree in lieu of graduating, getting a job, and applying what he or she learned in college. I think the negative view of a humanities degree comes from a misconception that every person who does so will have only two possible occupations—the first being a professor; the second, a career student. Of course, any English major knows that his or her degree can be used for a great deal more than the continued pursuit of academia. And in fact, those who take the route of the perpetual student, spending their lives poring over books and doing little else, are not what Emerson calls true scholars. “The true scholar,” he says, “grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power” (542). To forgo action for books—tempting as it may be for booklovers like myself—is to resign oneself to never achieving true understanding. To put it simply, learning about something is not the same as doing it.
There is a valuable lesson to be learned here, both for students who pursue the liberal arts and for students who do not. For the people who assume a degree in the humanities is not applicable to real life, Emerson says, “Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth” (541). Not only is it possible to apply what one learns from literature to his or her daily life, it is in fact necessary. Emerson’s sentiment that action transforms thought into truth is, I think, another way of saying that we can adapt the universal truths we find in philosophy and literature to our seemingly ordinary lives. Furthermore, it should be said that we gain functional skills like communication and analytical thinking—skills that are indispensable in every industry—with an English degree.
It’s a mistake for people outside the humanities to overlook the practical application of such a degree; however, scholars within the humanities are guilty of doing the same. At some point in his speech, Emerson makes a remark that is perhaps intended for scholars who avoid leaving the ivory tower; he says: “Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day. This is the way to learn grammar. Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the yardwork made” (542). This is to say that a scholar ought not get too caught up in his or her studies, as experience is more important than anything a book could teach; as ultimately, “character is higher than intellect” (543). We must apply what we learn from literature to our own lives and give it a practical meaning instead of existing under the presupposition that what we learn in our studies is too intellectual, too highbrow, to use in everyday life; a lofty and withdrawn attitude encourages disregard of the humanities. The realization that one must eventually leave the ivory tower, if only for a time, is incredibly pertinent for any student who is reluctant to make the transition from college to “the real world.” Being in that position myself, the fact that Emerson considers the completion of one’s education to take place after he or she gains real-world experience, rather than at graduation, is strangely comforting. As apathetic as I am about entering the workforce, Emerson would say that failing to take this step would be to cheat myself of a full education, thereby denying myself the right to be called scholar.
Although Emerson teaches us the necessity of putting our knowledge to practical use, the possibility remains that I won’t love my first job, or even like it. Perhaps I will feel that the work I am doing is pointless or boring. Emerson addresses misgivings like mine in a section of his speech that tackles the widespread apathy felt by American laborers in the first half of the nineteenth century:
The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. (537)
It is not difficult, according to Emerson, for one to become disenchanted, and even cynical, about the mundane affairs of one’s job. Instead of thinking of himself as a nurturer of life, someone who grows and tends the agriculture that fuels the human body, the Man on the farm starts to think of his work as a means to an end, and nothing more. It isn’t hard to see how such disenchantment might develop. A farmer plants seeds, waters the plants that grow, and harvests them. Then the process starts again. The farmer will experience this cycle ad nauseum; he will become indifferent toward what is, truly, a miracle of life. His bleak perspective on how he spends his days will determine how he thinks of himself; so he will call himself not a Man on the farm, but a mere farmer. In doing so, he will reduce himself to nothing more than his profession. To avoid falling into this mindset, Emerson says that the farmer must look beyond his bushel and his cart so that he can grasp his own worth.
For me, this means that the student must look beyond her classes and her books to realize that she is more than just a student. Emerson explains that “scholar” and “worker” are not mutually exclusive: “Is not, indeed, every man a student, and do not all things exist for the student’s behoof? And, finally, is not the true scholar the only true master? . . . In life, too often, the scholar errs with mankind and forfeits his privilege” (537-538). This is to say, a true scholar will find merit in every experience, and not strictly in academic undertakings. This goes back to learning to apply one’s knowledge to real life; however, it also means that we should view the whole world as a learning instrument instead of limiting our learning to the classroom. “There is virtue yet in the hoe and the spade,” Emerson says, “for learned as well as for unlearned hands” (543). Although I’m fairly certain that farming is not in my immediate future, Emerson’s hoe and spade example does not have to be taken literally. It simply means that one does not stop being a scholar when taking a break from books; and in fact, a change of pace, whether it’s physical labor or just an unexpected job, will probably be beneficial. (“Of course, he who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom” ). I think this is useful to remember for the new graduate who finds him or herself in an unexpected career, or for the graduate who dismisses any opportunity that does not fit perfectly with what he or she has envisioned. This is especially important for English majors who envision themselves as bestselling authors or in a position at a successful publishing company straight out of college. Emerson would say that we should not limit ourselves in this way, for the true scholar is adaptable and sees the opportunity in every line of work.
Despite the fact that it was written in 1837, there is so much wisdom in “The American Scholar” that is relevant to anyone, and especially to students. As a reluctant soon-to-be-graduate, this speech helps me understand why successfully integrating my knowledge into the real world is what Emerson calls an essential step of any scholar’s education. On a larger scale, there are truths in Emerson’s speech that apply to virtually everyone, scholars and non-scholars alike; keeping one’s identity separate from one’s profession, recognizing the benefits of every job, and learning to appreciate everyday life are just a few of these universal lessons. What “The American Scholar” gives us, essentially, is a formula for maintaining a sense of optimism by finding beauty in the seemingly mundane details of life and viewing the world around us as a vehicle for expanding our knowledge.