|Ralph Waldo Emerson|
Do they still teach that? A fellow teacher posed that question to me the other day when she discovered that I would be guiding my students through Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It took me aback. At first, I had to ask myself if the question was tied to the “quality” of my students—I teach in an alternative high school setting with students that are predominantly lower income and African-American—or if it simply had to do with these writers being old-fashioned and out of date.
I dismissed the first. After all, I don’t think it matters one whit what color my students’ skins are, nor what their socio-economic level might be. Pandering to that is what holds people back and allows them to become victims of society. Quite frankly, I don’t think it matters that some might perceive the text as being too difficult or too advanced for students reading three to four years below grade level. After all, I am here to teach these students to extend themselves not continue to feed them pablum that allows them to fall even more below grade level while I sit and draw my paycheck.
If my students cannot read a text independently because of the difficulty of that passage, then I can assist them by walking them through that material, discussing it, and helping them to form their own observations and opinions. They will stretch their ability to look more deeply into difficult text, to use strategies like pausing to evaluate what they have just read, but most importantly they will be exposed to ideas. Of course, my hope is that they will pause to actually think about those ideas because I find that to be the biggest challenge to today’s students, no matter their education level or background: they too complacently accept what they read, see, or hear without questioning its accuracy or validity.
So, that takes us to the second thought—that Emerson and Thoreau are old-fashioned and out of date. I would argue that also is a fallacy. Rather than viewing them as old-fashioned and out of date, I see them as the foundation for many of our modern philosophers and activists. Emerson pushes forth the idea that, above all else, we must be true to what we know is right within our own being. Thoreau takes that concept of self-reliance to another level when he urges people to “break the law” when they know a law is unjust.
These two men are the inspiration for so many modern day activists: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. being two examples. However, let me put forth some others, whether you agree with their ideas or not. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which sought social and economic change—more than just a bunch of whiny generation X,Y and Z’ers—they at least followed this idea of protesting what they perceived as unjust. The Rowan County Kentucky clerk of court, Kim Davis, held to her religious beliefs and refused to obey the law with regard to issuing marriage licenses. On one hand, staying true to her own belief system falls right in line with what Emerson and Thoreau preach. Of course, she doesn’t exactly align with Thoreau because he also says that the highest duty of a government official who disagrees with what the government is doing is for that official to resign office. That hasn’t happened so far.
The point is that if part of my responsibility is to teach students American Literature, then I must do so based on a foundation of understanding, a historical precedence, if you will. If they are truly to understand the writings of people like Dr. King and Malcolm X, then they must understand Emerson and Thoreau. If they are to understand Emerson and Thoreau, then they must also understand the writings of men like Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, who helped open the door to the idea of standing up for what is right even if it means opposing government. Writers do not pull ideas out of nothingness, so writing does not occur in a vacuum. It is the result of what has happened in the past, what is of current concern, and what might be of concern in the future. For students to predict future concerns, they must have some knowledge of the past. In order to have some idea where they are headed then, we must give students some idea of how our society arrived at its current state. We do that by showing students where we have been.
Men like Voltaire, Jefferson, Paine, Emerson, and Thoreau lay down the continuation of thought and action that brought us through Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement to present day interpretations of activism. It is only with that grounding that students can make valid judgments and find their own core belief system when they must decide whether actions such as Kim Davis’s or the actions of protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore are right or just. To do any less is to do my students a disservice, so while I cannot answer whether they still teach Emerson and Thoreau, I can answer why I do.