March 07, 2013

I embrace the common

The theme here lately is the work of American Transcendentalis Ralph Waldo Emerson. Today I'm finishing up a look at his 1837 essay/lecture The American Scholar. Part of its appeal lay in its embrace of everyday life and its call for intellectuals to escape from what would come to be called the ivory tower, a sentiment one can often hear expressed nearly 200 years later.

Here he is sounding like a prose version of Walt Whitman:

...I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds.
Some of the last lines of this essay are particularly memorable, as Emerson calls for a new American educational system to break with European models:

We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American feeman is alreaded suspected to be timid, imitative, tame.
Instead, he calls for a break with the traditions of the past:
We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall no longer be a name for pit, for doubt, for sensual indulgence....A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.
Pretty rousing stuff, but I'm not sure the American higher educational system has quite  lived up to Emerson's dreams. That's one aircraft carrier that's not ready for the "Mission Accomplished" banner.

SPEAKING OF "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED," we're coming up on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War.

STILL POPULAR AFTER ALL THESE YEARS. That would be raising the minimum wage.

PASS THE MEAT? Or pass on it?


March 06, 2013

There's the rub

The theme at Goat Rope lately is the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with a special focus now on his lecture/essay The American Scholar.

Full disclosure: I'm doing this for several reasons. One, it's kind of a busy time and having a regular theme makes it easier to feed a blog. Two, I'm trying to figure out Emerson and see what there is in his work that makes sense today. 

I must admit that I can read whole pages or even essays of his and have no idea of what he's talking about. But then he'll have some great zingers that are keepers. Here's one of those:

This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.
That, alas, is the tough part.

 A BLAST FROM THE PAST. Here are some progressive planks from the Republican Party platform...of 1956.

BAD NEWS WAITING TO HAPPEN. Extremist groups on the right are ramping up these days, enraged by both possible gun regulations...and the fact that there's a black man in the White House.

WOULD YOU, COULD YOU EAT AN EYE? No, I say, don't ask me why.


March 05, 2013

Life is our dictionary

The theme at Goat Rope these days is the work of 19th century American sage Ralph Waldo Emerson, with a current focus on his essay/lecture The American Scholar. The essay didn't make a huge splash at the time but over the years its influence grew and he is now seen as a forerunner of those pragmatists and reformers who wanted to broaden the definition of education and scholarship to include knowledge of practical life.

This passage is typical:

Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town--in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with many men and women; in science; in art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions. I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech. Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get the tiles and cope-stones for the masonry of to-day. This is the way to learn grammar. Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the work-yard made.
That sounds lie a precursor to the current support for vocational education, although it is also about how practical life enriches and creates living language.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN. Here's a critique of the Obama administrations approach to the deficit debate.


NO CLIMATE CHANGE HERE, BOSS, even though an Arctic sea route is probably going to open up later in this century.


March 04, 2013

Creative reading

The theme at Goat Rope these days is Ralph Waldo Emerson's influential essay on The American Scholar. In that lecture, delivered to distinguished Harvard alumni, he disparaged book learning separated from life. And, although I am a reader's reader, this is one time when he makes pretty good sense to me. They go better together.

Some of the best reading I've done has happened when I've been immersed in some struggle or other that called into play everything I had. For example, reading about the history of the civil rights movement or reading the works of social thinkers like the great Jewish sage Martin Buber or Protestant theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich  was much more nourishing and real when I was in the midst of a fight for racial justice or workers' rights and grappling with questions of means and ends. Likewise, reading Hobbes was more alive when I was working to reduce youth violence, just as modern philosophers like Habermas or Rawls were when I was trying to deal with and figure out different systems of domination.

Here's Emerson making what I think is the same point:

There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant; and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. 

Sometimes I've returned to the same books that once burned on the page at a later date and a calmer time and found, with Hamlet, just words, words, words.

WILL HE OR WON'T HE? Here's the Washington Post interviewing WV's Senator Jay Rockefeller about the future of health care reform, including the question of whether WV's Governor Earl Ray Tomblin will expand Medicaid.


March 03, 2013

The scholar's idle times

Drawing of Harvard by Eliza Susan Quincy, circa 1836, around the time of Emerson's lecture there on "The American Scholar." Image by way of wikipedia.

During this busy season, the theme at Goat Rope is the life and work of New England Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. This week the focus is on one of his influential early essays/lectures, The American Scholar, which was delivered at the annual meeting of Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society. Fifty years after it was given, Oliver Wendell Holmes called it "our Intellectual Declaration of Independence."

To tell the truth, Emerson at the time didn't think much of Harvard's method of education or of traditional education generally. In fact, this lifelong lover of reading took a few potshots at book learning, or at least book learning separated from the experience of life. Here are a few:

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke,  which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books... 
Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system... 
Books are for the scholar's idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings...

JUST DO IT. Here's another op-ed by yours truly in support of expanding Medicaid to low wage workers in WV.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, if you support expansion, please go to the Facebook page, like it, and stay in touch with advocacy efforts.