Closer Readings Commentary

Emerson for the Classroom

"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson is an exemplary author to fulfill the ELA informational texts requirement for the Common Core. Conduct an investigation into Emerson’s “Society and Solitude,” a text exemplar for Grades 11–CCR (Appendix B. p. 167)—or select another essay of your choosing—to align with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.3 Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text using the strategy questions:

  • In what order are the points made?
  • How are the points introduced and developed?
  • How does Emerson skillfully connect the various points?
  • How does the Emerson summarize his point in the conclusion?

Beyond straightforward essay analysis how can teachers engage 21st century students with Emerson’s ideas? NEH’s Humanities magazine’s “Ralph Waldo Emerson: Beyond the Greeting Cards” offers clues for tying Emerson’s writings to the issues important to today’s youth.

One entrée to Emerson is through Henry David Thoreau, his protégé who excelled at pairing philosophy with observations of daily life. Readings in Thoreau such as Walden and his journals seem more down to earth and can open the door to the questions posed by the Transcendentalist movement that Emerson spawned. What is the nature of humankind? Who determines right and wrong for the individual? What is the individual’s obligation to society? At what point is it necessary to break the law? Where is the individual closest to the divine? How much of one’s values must one compromise to live in society?

Despite his conventional exterior, Emerson had a non-conformist streak like Thoreau. The free-thinking ideals of Transcendentalists appeal to students and provide them with a touchstone for their adolescent rebelliousness. According to Emerson scholar, Donald McQuade, “Faith in human potential, belief in self-reliant individualism, resolute optimism, moral idealism, worshipful return to nature—these are but a few of Emerson’s principles that remain central to the national ideology he helped articulate and popularize.” McQuade goes on to note, “the challenge for today’s readers of Emerson is to recover the freshness of a creative thinker whose original ideas no longer sound unique.”

Activities to engage students with Emerson and other Transcendentalists:

The American Scholar: An “Intellectual Declaration of Independence”

Emerson captivated his audience and later readers with a groundbreaking speech he delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard August 31, 1837. In what became known as “the American Scholar” speech, he cited three sources of inspiration: learning from nature; studying the past from books; and becoming people of action. Emerson cautioned against using the past as a manual on how to conduct one’s life. He believed in the importance of books as a source of wisdom. Use them as a guide; however, do not become dependent on them. One must read, think and decide for oneself, and act according to the dictates of one’s own time.

Have students compare this address (referred to as “Intellectual Declaration of Independence” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.) to recent commencement speeches and other formal addresses to fulfill CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text. View a video or read a transcript of an address given at your school’s commencement or access online speeches delivered by notable people (i.e., Remarks by the President at the United States Naval Academy Commencement May 2013; Oprah Winfrey’s Commencement Address to Harvard 2013.)

Consider similarities and differences in tone, scope, content, and the length of the two speeches. Consider how each speech treats the values of the society. (In classical rhetoric, there is a distinction between a ceremonial speech—called “epideictic”—in which a speaker reinforces existing values, and a deliberative speech, in which the speaker advocates a change in policy.) Identify references to the speaker’s personal experiences and discuss how they support or detract from his/her main arguments. Consider how the speaker uses humor in the speech, if at all, and how effective that is in reaching the audience.

Another option would be to offer the American Scholar speech as part of a speaking/listening exercise. Student may take turns delivering passages to fulfill CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.3 Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.

Remind students much of Emerson’s writing “originated as texts that were meant to be spoken, which may explain why some of his essays do not seem fully realized, reading like scripts for plays that retain their most vital spark only in live performance. Emerson’s chief livelihood was as a speaker, a man who was a regular on the lyceum circuit: the nineteenth-century equivalent of the talk-show tour.” A traveling Tonight Show host in scholarly disguise! Now that’s an image of Emerson 21st century students can relate to.