[On Sundays, Career Calling ponders questions of life and work in “Sabbath.”]
I was cleaning up my office yesterday when I came across a paperback version of Emerson’s essays. I flipped to the “American Scholar,” a speech given to Cambridge’s Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837. Emerson’s definition of scholarship goes far beyond our current ideal, which can be measured in letters after one’s name. For Emerson, the scholar must be one who knows nature and the past. He also must live a life of action, being part of the world. This definition made me think about contemporary American culture. Who are our American scholars?
In saying the scholar must know nature, Emerson describes someone who understands connections, “roots.” Similarly, his call to know the past is not simply a matter of studying history. Instead, the scholar needs to engage in a lived relation with what has come before and understand how it has shaped the present. Action builds on the knowledge of nature and the past by letting the scholar bring his learning to the world. Emerson put it this way: “If it were only for a vocabulary, the scholar would be covetous of action. Life is our dictionary. . . . I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived through the poverty or splendor of his speech.”
America lost two great scholars over the past few years with the deaths of Richard Rorty and Studs Terkel. Rorty was a traditional scholar, a philosopher, who could write for and speak to all types of audiences. I once had the pleasure of attending one of Rorty’s lectures. When the time came to answer questions, he took on all challengers without ever resorting to jargon or “-ism”-based thinking. Studs was the intellectual everyman. An actor and a radio host who became a writer almost by accident. His gift was listening to people and weaving their stories into quilts that defined America after the Second World War.
Who are today’s American scholars? I’d nominate Garry Wills and Cornel West as two thinkers who have been involved in the debate not just to describe the country, but to shape it. Some critics would instantly dismiss both men (especially West) for being too liberal. I am aware of such thinking, and it makes me despair that we are a time in which it might be impossible for there to be an American scholar.
We are a divided country in which some are on the political left, some are on the political right, and most (my guess is 50%) are in the “we don’t care” middle. The questions that engaged Emerson have little relevance to most Americans today. They don’t want to think about politics or history, much less philosophy or ethics. When confronted with an intellectual challenge, they walk away, muttering, “Whatever.” Emerson saw the scholar having a much stronger commitment to truth: “Let him not quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom.” Few things engage most American beyond the last hot TV show or what a friend posted on Facebook.
Emerson says the scholar must be “man thinking,” a person who treats ideas in a way that rises above petty things like current events and politics. As Jay Leno demonstrates with his “Jay Walking” segments, many Americans know little about their country, its history, and culture. How can we have scholars who are “men [and women] thinking” if his or her audience knows so little about their identity as citizens? These people are not illiterate. Many have college degrees. They live in a pop culture where styles changes quickly (which is a good way to sell things to these people). They do not read books. They don’t care about history, literature, or art.
Ever the dreamer, Emerson thought the American scholar would be a great force for change and cultural independence: “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” That spirit and independence does not exist in our culture today. Maybe some genius (a new Lincoln?) can spark the country. Maybe. With Emerson as our guide, we can still hope.
Postscript: I forgot one person who would also be on my list of contemporary American scholar, the inspiration of this feature, Wendell Berry.