Last year's Ralph Waldo Emerson bicentennial was a melancholy anniversary: though a few of Emerson's verses are still read, and one or two of his essays still cherished, he has been largely forgotten. Worse, education theorists have hijacked and debased what is most useful and attractive in his philosophy of self-reliance. Ever since John Dewey, in his 1916 book Democracy and Education, drew on Emersonian self-reliance in his effort to liberate children from the "autocratic" authority of their teachers, the educrats have worked overtime to transform Emerson into a prophet of classroom anarchy, a philosopher of the flimsier forms of self-esteem, and an apologist for a cavalier egotism that ruins lives.
Though his ghost is implicated in a mass of unintelligent policy, Emerson is at the same time necessary to any renovation we can conceive. America's first great public intellectual, he breathed new life into methods of educating young people that have their origin in the earliest epochs of our national history and that, until not all that long ago, occupied a central place in the American classroom. More important, his vision of the goal of education--the nurturing of independent and sturdily self-reliant individuals--is a particularly American, and a particularly valuable, ideal.
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