Closer Readings Commentary

Engaging with Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study in his home in Concord Museum, Concord, Massachusetts.
Photo caption

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study in his home in Concord Museum, Concord, Massachusetts.

Public Domain

This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.—Ralph Waldo EmersonThe American Scholar speech

Ralph Waldo Emerson is an exemplary author whose essays may be used to fulfill the ELA informational texts requirement for the Common Core. Here are some ways teachers can engage 21st-century students with Emerson’s thinking and rhetoric.

NEH’s Humanities magazine article, “Ralph Waldo Emerson: Beyond the Greeting Cards,” written by Danny Heitman, offers clues for tying Emerson’s writings to issues important to today’s youth. One entrée that Heitman suggests is through “Henry David Thoreau, an Emerson protégé who excelled at grounding his philosophical musings within detailed observations of Concord” and who “seems much more approachable by comparison.” The NEH-funded Thoreau Reader offers resources to explore the relationship between Thoreau and Emerson.

Thoreau’s down-to-earth style of writing opens the door for students to uncover questions posed by the Transcendentalist movement that Emerson spawned. The free-thinking ideals of the Transcendentalists appeal to today’s adolescents and can serve as touchstones for the rebelliousness that may characterize this phase of their lives. The EDSITEment-reviewed American Transcendentalism Web offers background and essays on Emerson and his role in the movement. ReadWriteThink’s Examining Transcendentalism through Popular Culture offers activities to introduce students to the principles of Transcendentalism and help students analyze the writings of Emerson and Thoreau.

Another entry point to Emerson is the groundbreaking The American Scholar speech with which Emerson completely captivated the members of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, who were assembled at Harvard on August 31, 1837. This address was later referred to as America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

The American Scholar speech cites three sources of inspiration that students may draw upon: learning from nature; studying the past from books; and becoming people of action. In it, Emerson cautions against using the past as a manual on how to conduct one’s life. Books can be a wonderful source of wisdom; however, they should only be used as a guide, never as a crutch. An individual must be of independent mind—acting according to the dictates of his (or her) own conscience, in a manner that is appropriate the time in which he or she lives.

Suggested activities for using The American Scholar speech in the classroom:

Have students complete an analysis of Emerson’s address by comparing it to recent commencement speeches (i.e., an address given at your school commencement or recent commencement speeches delivered by notable people (i.e., Remarks by President Obama at Howard University Commencement Ceremony on May 07, 2016; Oprah Winfrey’s Commencement Address to Harvard on May 31, 2013).

Comparisons might be made according to:

  • Scope, content, and length;
  • General rhetorical genre used (i.e., the ways the values of the audience are treated by the speaker);

[Note: Students might make a distinction here based on two of classical rhetoric's three genres: ceremonial or “epideictic” speech, which acknowledges for the audience the praiseworthiness or blame accorded existing values (with no move to action); and “deliberative” speech, which does move the listener to take action in regard to a value or issue];

  • References to the speaker’s personal experience (in rhetoric, pathos), including how such anecdotes support or detract from the main points;
  • Humor (if any) as a rhetorical tool, and how effective the speaker’s humor is in affecting the audience.
  • Tone (noting how it has been discerned in the text).

(Aligns with 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.)

Another activity might involve using The American Scholar speech as part of a speaking/listening exercise. Have each student take turns delivering passages from it.

(Aligns with 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.)

Heitman reminds us that much of Emerson’s writing “originated as texts that were meant to be spoken” and goes on to say, “Emerson’s chief livelihood was as a speaker, a man who was a regular on the lyceum circuit, which was the 19th-century equivalent of the talk-show tour.” Emerson traveled around the country entertaining crowds and provoking thought at these public programs. Have students picture him in the guise of a favorite late night television guest taking on iconoclastic Stephen Colbert or congenial James Corden—delighting audiences with his witty philosophical spiels.

Now that’s an image of Emerson they can relate to!