Note: I delivered these comments at Husson University 2017 Top Scholars Dinner.
In closing his 1837 address to the Phi Beta Kappa society, a group not entirely unlike the one to which you belong, Emerson claims that “the world is nothing . . . in yourself is the law of all nature. . . , in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.” Of course, we tend to grumble a little at this type of ecstasy. Or maybe we simply laugh at or dismiss it; the same way we might dismiss the poignancy of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” or Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. Even such name dropping seems pretentious, weirdly elevated and such a common trope this time of year that it becomes hard to countenance.
I sympathize. I too sat where you do—chairs just a little too hard, room a bit too warm, time crawling like a spider along the nape of your neck–and listened to innumerable assertions about the benefits of a higher education. Sometimes the benefit was training for a job, as long as the jobs didn’t change (they did); sometimes the benefit was to make me a better person, as long as “better” had something to do with reading and writing and caring deeply about both (it did, I think). I appreciated these assertions and knew they were, in their way, true. Yet the assertions always seemed disconcerting; much of what we learn becomes integrated into who we are, it transforms us in ways we can’t easily measure or articulate. In his address, Emerson is pointing to this transformation, suggesting a sense of agency that we all, upon such an occasion, might benefit from considering.
We don’t often respond well to assertions similar to Emerson’s that the individual is an active cultural agent. A sincere belief that we have the agency “to know all” and “to dare all” seems at least suspect and to many absurd. Certainly, Emerson experienced this tension and used the panoptic language of transcendentalism to inspire the nation beyond the meanness in which it was enthralled.
We should note that Emerson spoke during troubled times. Only a few months before delivering his address, the country had sunk into a severe recession, during which banks failed and unemployment reached unprecedented levels. People everywhere suffered but few as unjustly as the country’s indigenous population. A few years before, in 1831, Native Americans had been forcibly removed from the east to Indian Territory in the west to free land for usurpation by Euro-American settlers. Diseases such as smallpox continued to ravish the country, killing thousands in the East, and more in indigenous communities. The country was in turmoil and in search of an identity that its political leaders were woefully unable to provide. The echo of this moment in our own time is alarming. In times rent by such pain, Emerson’s address to the Phi Betta Kapa society, a liberal arts organization that defined what it meant to be educated, offered the country’s leaders a way forward and perhaps a way out of the morass created by Andrew Jackson malevolence or Martin Van Buren’s incompetence.
The point of Emerson’s address is located in the modal verb “can”; his point is that you can make a choice, and this ability is the mechanism, maybe the poetry, motivating his argument. In this one act, you come to understand yourself, choosing to use the Reason you have acquired through your educations to confront the world, not only emotionally, but with critical insight, developing arguments that can lead to knowledge, information that can inspire lasting change. Unfortunately, we sometimes are convinced that Reason is merely an aspect of our reading, or maybe a class assignment we are required to complete and then safely ignore. Maybe the effort was fun in its way, but not exactly relevant.
However, Reason with a capital “r,” as Emerson understands it, is the only way we have actually come to know anything. It is the cosmic force binding the paper fibers in your diploma, the miracle defining the chair that keeps you suspended above the floor. It is the medium through which the real is transformed into the known.
Within this context, imagine how different the experience of an interview would be if, instead of asking you your GPA, your employer asked you what you had done to save the environment. Instead of asking you to describe your five-year plan, what if she asked you who you had helped that day. Imagine that instead of asking about salary and benefits, you asked how the company supported families and the less privileged. Imagine what such an interview would tell us about the purpose of an education, about our ambitions and the values that shape our sense of being in the world.
From the perspective of my hypothetical interview, Emerson’s ebullience might prove convincing; in his ideas we might find a joy in seeking to know something, in embracing the anxiety that comes with engaging the intellect in an exploration of the unknown, maybe the unknowable–the beauty that emanates from always having the ability to choose, possibly to choose a better world. In it is certainly, and maybe most importantly, hope.