May 8, 2008

Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Unschooler At Heart

I've been listening to some tapes from The Teaching Company (love them!) on Emerson, Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement. So, this morning, as I was reading a NY Times article entitled Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?, my ears (or eyes?) perked up when I spotted this quote from William Wordsworth (who happened to be a great influence on Emerson),
"Not choice but habit rules the unreflecting herd."
That got me thinking, reflecting, as it were, about the power of reflection. It's easy enough to follow along with the herd but unless we reflect upon where we're going and where we've been we're not really utilizing our full capacity as human beings. At least that's what Emerson thought.

These past months (242 days to be exact, according to my unschooling counter) I've been doing a huge amount of reflecting. It's caused me to challenge some of my previously held beliefs about education and parenting; it's led me off the well-worn path of traditional parenting (okay, I was never that traditional--but still), beyond the safety of curriculum and lesson plans, and into the world of unschooling.

And I'm thinking Emerson, famous for saying "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist," might be cheering me on if he were alive today.

In doing more research on Emerson I found this philosophy site that states, "Self-reliance and independence of thought are fundamental to Emerson’s perspective in that they are the practical expressions of the central relation between the self and the infinite. To trust oneself and follow our inner promptings corresponds to the highest degree of consciousness."

But Emerson didn't stop at "trust yourself." He also urged us to trust our children:
 "I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained and he only holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions. Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude."

I love this notion that only the child holds the key to his or her own secret. And if you just substitute "children" for boys and "adults" for men, I really like what he says here:

"We teach boys to be such men as we are. We do not teach them to aspire to be all they can. We do not give them a training as if we believed in their noble nature. We scarce educate their bodies. We do not train the eye and the hand. We exercise their understandings to the apprehension and comparison of some facts, to a skill in numbers, in words; we aim to make accountants, attorneys, engineers, but not to make able, earnest, great-hearted men. The great object of Education should be commensurate with the object of life. It should be a moral one; to teach self-trust: to inspire the youthful man with an interest in himself; with a curiosity touching his own nature; to acquaint him with the resources of his mind, and to teach him that there is all his strength, and to inflame him with a piety towards the Grand Mind in which he lives."

I'm not really sure what he means by "the Grand Mind"--he was ordained as a priest (eventually leaving the priesthood), so it's likely he's talking about God. Emerson was one of the first Westerners, by the way, to suggest that we carry God within ourselves--a radical idea in a time when it was believed priests were a necessary conduit to the Divine. But I'm going to choose to believe it's a collective consciousness he's talking about because I like that idea better.

Here's Emerson's advice to teachers:
"Now the correction of this quack practice [the current education system] is to import into Education the wisdom of life. Leave this military hurry and adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience.... Can you not baffle the importance and passion of the child by your tranquillity? Can you not wait for him, as Nature and Providence do?... He has a secret; wonderful methods in him; he is,---every child,---a new style of man; give him time and opportunity. Talk of Columbus and Newton! I tell you the child just born in yonder hovel is the beginning of a revolution as great as theirs. But you must have the believing and prophetic eye. Have the self-command you wish to inspire. Your teaching and discipline must have the reserve and taciturnity of Nature. Teach them to hold their tongues by holding your own. Say little; do not snarl; do not chide; but govern by the eye. See what they need, and that the right thing is done."
This is more of the same, really, but it made me laugh:
"I suffer whenever I see that common sight of a parent or senior imposing his opinion and way of thinking and being on a young soul to which they are totally unfit. Cannot we let people be themselves, and enjoy life in their own way? You are trying to make that man another you. One's enough."

No kidding!

And lest we reflect too much on all the times we've tampered, thwarted, imposed, and opined, Emerson also said:
Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.
I think I have a new mantra.

For more information on Ralph Waldo Emerson and his rockin' unschooling philosophy visit:
Emerson's Philosophy of Education
American Transcendentalism Web

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