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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Who's Afraid of Ralph Waldo Emerson? A Back-to-School Blog Post

Who's Afraid of Ralph Waldo Emerson?

A newly-minted humanities PhD, I was receiving rejection letters that reported applicants in the hundreds. Two days before the fall semester began, I unearthed a part-time, temporary gig, teaching sophomore literature at a community college. My new boss handed me a syllabus. Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" was at its top. I grinned from ear to ear. Surely this was serendipity.

The first time I had read Emerson's thunderous exhortation to individualism was, I suspect, like some people's first experience of sex. "Self-Reliance" had been the quickening lightning bolt in my primeval soup; it was the permission I'd been waiting for all my life to value myself, and rely on myself, no apologies, no regrets. I couldn't wait to teach it.

One of my students, a prison guard and weight lifter, brought the text to class, placed it on his desk, and began pounding with his closed fist. "'Imitation is suicide'? This makes no sense," he shouted.

"It's a metaphor," I said.

Response: a blank stare.

"You have to understand metaphorical truth v. literal truth," I went on. "Otherwise, for example, you'd never understand why some Christians believe in Creationism, and others in Evolution."

This time his blank stare was downright hostile.

This student wanted to be a police officer. "This is relevant," I insisted. I described a recent exposé on the abuse of Taser guns by police. Elderly women and other defenseless suspects had been shot repeatedly. A police investigator told PBS, "We're not spending enough time with the verbal skills, language skills…skills that don't necessarily mean me clobbering you."

I asked another student, "What do you think Emerson means?"

"Unless you tell me what he means, how should I know?" With so much indignation she could crate and export it, this student informed me that, previous to my class, she had earned a 4.0 GPA.

A student who had promised me that he was the next Tupac Shakur leaned back in his chair. "This is twenty pages long," he announced, as if he'd caught me doing something really, really bad. Others, livid, nodded heavily.

"Yes," I agreed, naively.

"Twenty pages long," he repeated. "Twenty pages."

The other students took on the look of a jury pushed past all reasonable doubt.

I displayed a recent letter in Newsweek that quoted "Self-Reliance" to comment on the 2004 presidential campaign charge of "flip flopping." "'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.' Look," I argued, "'Self-Reliance' charts the DNA of American character!"

"We don't understand," the students asserted. These aggressive avowals of incomprehension flummoxed me. Didn't people usually admit that they did not understand with a certain amount of humility? Humility assumed to deflect shame and ridicule, to marshal aid in understanding? But these students were pronouncing, "I don't understand" not as a request for clarification, but as an indictment. The accused on the witness stand, before a hanging judge, were Emerson and I. 

"It's so easy for you," students claimed. "You with your PhD. You were born reading stuff like this. It's different for us."

My parents were peasant immigrants. My mother cleaned houses. My father mined coal and carried bags. I earned my PhD by working as a domestic servant. I am dyslexic. To read, I go through a ritualized series of compensations. After months of unemployment, I am broke. I walked to campus with a change of clothes in my backpack.

I had once raged at the literary canon of "Dead White Males." I wanted to read authors like Anzia Yezierska, an immigrant, a woman, a scrubber of floors, like me, like my mother. And her last name ended, not just in a vowel, but in "ska"!

Time passed. Life hit me, as it hits us all. Spring flowers. Love. The death of family, and of dreams. Lines I had resisted came back to me, supported me. Lines from Robert Frost, from Thoreau, from Emerson. I learned to be tremendously grateful for the works of the Dead White Males that I had been, kicking and screaming, force-fed.

My students could not see any of this. Someone had told them, had been telling them for some time, that my superior literary education, that my presumed ethnic privilege, that my exposing them to Emerson, to works longer than nineteen pages, to questions that they did not understand, violated them.

I sat down with the woman who hired me. She was scandalized. "Why did you assign 'Self-Reliance'?"

"It's the first work on the syllabus you gave me."

"I didn't even read that syllabus before I gave it to you; it was just something left over from a previous adjunct," she said, snatching it and tearing it up.

She paged through an anthology. She methodically selected the shortest readings, with the easiest vocabularies, and the least challenging ideas. Hemingway – his short, simple sentences notwithstanding – was deemed too hard.

I couldn't sleep or eat. Were I to contribute to certifying college sophomores who could not comprehend "Self-Reliance" as worthy students of literature, I would contribute to a lie. I resigned from the class.

I continued, though, to teach another section of the same class on the same campus. They, too, were accidentally exposed to Emerson. For reasons I cannot explain, these students decided to swim, rather than sink. They read all twenty pages. They went on to read Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, and Herman Melville. One wrote so well that I phoned friends to read to them his assignments. "Isn't that terrific?"

These students will receive the same degree as the others.

I despair. And there is Emerson, intoning sonorous lines. "What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us." I am grateful that, back in the day, a teacher ordered me to read Emerson, and did not let my fear or my chips-on-shoulder ban Emerson from my life. I wish such teachers on all students.

This essay appears in the July issue of Ontologica.


  1. Thank you for sharing this essay Danusha. Often things in education in our country are too easy. Learning is about pushing the edges of comfort. When I start getting really uncomfortable I know I am on a huge learning curve.

    1. Kim I agree so strongly about the "leaning curve" discomfort!

  2. I used to love Emerson and think I will read this essay again after many years. There is quite a shortage of individuals and it is getting worse for a variety of reasons.
    I was a 3.75 MBA student and I once proofed a paper for a 4.0 student that was written at a high school level, if that. I still can't believe it.

    1. Gordon, tell us what you think after you reread Self Reliance!