Ralph Waldo Emerson Essay

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Ralph Waldo Emerson was a preacher, philosopher, poet, outspoken critic, sage, and the leading advocate of the American Transcendentalist movement, although reducing Emerson to “transcendentalist” would ultimately be a disservice to someone who vehemently opposed categorization, a process that he thought limited scope, influence, and potential. Even though Emerson criticized formal schooling, a tuition that ultimately impeded intuition, his work remains relevant to educators today.

Emerson assailed standardization and conformity, bemoaning a society wedded to the past, still dependent upon Europe for innovation and growth. For Emerson, life was change and required a departure from the comfortable past. “New arts destroy the old,” he wrote in “Circles.” Unlike today’s market-based reformers who rate schools by test scores, Emerson believed schools should be judged by examining society, refusing to see the distinction between the two. He once remarked that “a vicious society cannot have virtuous schools.”

Although Emerson is best known for his essays, collected and published several times during his life (1841, 1844, 1850, 1860), he also produced a number of poems (1847, 1867, 1876) and delivered hundreds of lectures.


  1. Emerson, R. W. (1966). Emerson on education: Selections. New York: Teachers College Press.

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