All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1963

Emerson in Suburbia

Mr. Withers is Administrative Director of the Council for Basic Education, and prior to that had been a high school teacher of English in a wealthy New York suburb.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson’s voice in Boston’s Athenaeum is said to have entranced his listeners, so the voice in his essays has made many readers since his day feel suddenly responsive. But Emerson does not go over in today’s sub­urbia. He is not “with it.” The boys and girls whom I taught English in a wealthy New York suburb may or may not be “to­morrow’s leaders” (as they are so often told they will be) but they are the sons and daughters of to­day’s leaders. They are unusually earnest for high school students. They want to understand. But they just can’t dig Emerson. His voice has stopped somewhere short of their ken.

“To believe in your own thought,” Emerson said, “to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.” It is a genius missing among “tomorrow’s leaders.” The sophisticated high school boys and girls today are suspicious of this kind of self-trust. Popular psychology, learned from TV, magazines, and their parents and teachers, has made them distrust difference as eccen­tricity—eccentricity attributable to repressions or obsessions. So in proper caution most of them meas­ure their own thoughts against those of others. To Emerson’s statement, “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards,” their reaction is that God, if there is a God, will not have his work done, necessarily, either by cowards or brave men. He will have his work done by reasonable men, who understand human motiva­tion, sitting in committee and producing a result that all reason­able men may readily accept.

It would be unfair to make this generalization about today’s sub­urban youth without some apology for them. To begin with, there are a few adolescents who admire Emerson’s thought and genuinely try to live by their own convic­tions. Secondly, it must be ad­mitted that Emerson did not ap­peal to the majority of men even in his own time. And in the third place, we must concede the much rehashed assertion that adoles­cence is a period of conformity not only in suburbia but through­out the world. In that age, which we are told is “insecure,” boys and girls take comfort from dress­ing, talking, and thinking alike.

An Open Hostility

But there are significant objec­tions to this apology. Not only are there very few (one or two in a class at the most) who find Emer­son’s philosophy compatible; most of the students I taught were posi­tively hostile to it. They either considered it dangerous and dis­ruptive or else the product of a puerile mind which had not, alas, had the advantage of familiarity with post-Freudian thought. And while Emerson never appealed to the majority, these students them­selves are hardly representative of the man on the street. They take their academic work seri­ously, many of them come from illustrious families, and their average I.Q. ranges with that of the better independent prepara­tory schools. If any of today’s adolescents might be expected to heed an appeal to individualism, they might.

But I have taught in rural schools, both in Vermont and in New York state, and in both places I found more individualism and more respect for individual­ism than I did in suburbia, though most of the individualists I found in the rural schools were of a homespun variety that Emerson would doubtless have approved more than they would him. Fur­thermore, most of these will keep the noiseless tenor of their way along the cool sequester’d vale of life, while their better educated contemporaries will provide the Cromwells and the Miltons of the coming generation—if, indeed, there be any. To be a Cromwell or a Milton you have to have the genius to believe in your own thought.

Angry at Society?

To most of my students in sub­urbia I assigned both “Self-Reli­ance” and “Heroism,” the essays in which Emerson makes his strongest appeals for integrity of thought and conscience. One boy, a thoughtful one and a student leader, made an objection to Em­erson that immediately had the rest of the class echoing with ap­proval. It was to Emerson’s state­ment, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” The boy asked, “What was the matter with Emerson? Was he angry at society?” He implied that only dyspepsia could account for such an attitude. Turning to the class generally I asked, “Haven’t you ever felt social pressure?” Of course, they admitted that they had. But they did not feel that this was pressure against their own integrity. Rather, they grudg­ingly said that social pressure is something to be grateful for. “It helps us when we get out of line.”

“Heroism” made even less sense to them than did “Self-Reliance.” The students commented on it with restrained contempt. “The hero,” said Emerson, “is a mind of such balance that no disturb­ances can shake his will, but pleasantly and, as it were, merrily he advances to his own music, alike in frightful alarms and in the tipsy mirth of universal dis­soluteness.” One of the more pre­cocious boys asked, as we consid­ered this, whether or not Emerson was paranoid. Seeing that they did not accept Emerson’s concept of a hero, I asked them what theirs was. Apart from the ex­pected examples of physical hero­ism, such as rescuing people from a burning building, the students showed disrespect not only for Em­erson’s concept but for the idea of heroism generally. The word hero, indeed, was among many of them a slur-word: “What are you trying to be, a hero?” It was bad form to stand out.

Other terms popular among the students also indicate their cast of thought. A “fink” is someone who plays a lone game. Emerson today would be a fink if he were among these students. From pop­ular psychology comes their term “sick,” a term which is applied not only to individuals but to any ideas that are “way out.” A term of great approval is “cool,” but it is applied only to things which are strictly regulation. If a thing is “shoe,” it’s O.K., even though it may not be cool. “Shoe,” I un­derstand, originated among the slightly older college set during the time when it was mandatory to wear dirty white bucks (thus being “shoe”) unless you wanted to be considered sick or a fink.

Adults Partly at Fault

This distrust of individualism and worship of conformity is at least partly the fault of adults. Teachers have long been blamed for rewarding docility and compliance while punishing noncon­forming behavior. Our faculty de­vised a way to insure the success of such “cooperation.” It was called the “Citizenship Committee,” and, although its ideals were nobly stated, one of its effects was to dim the spark that Emerson pleaded for. The Citizenship Com­mittee was composed of both fac­ulty and student members.

I remember on one occasion hearing the faculty head of the committee speak proudly of the effectiveness of its work over the preceding two or three years. There had been a home football game in which the opponents up­rooted our goalposts after the game. “There wasn’t a move on anybody’s part to stop them, and there wasn’t any fight,” the fac­ulty man boasted. “Only a few years ago we’d have had a real fight on our hands.” While I am not in favor of brawls, it seemed to me that something had been lost with this gain—perhaps some­thing more vital than the avoid­ance of bloodied noses or the show of “ungentlemanly behavior”—something that Emerson called in “Self-Reliance” a “wild virtue.”

There is another reason why the pupils I taught found Emerson’s ideas so incompatible: it is their concept of democracy. “Democ­racy” has become a word almost religious in its earnest applica­tion (and, as I feel, misapplica­tion) with these boys and girls. It is a worship of majority opinion. The individuals who occa­sionally stood up in righteous in­dignation within their town meet­ings, which fostered our original brand of democracy, in order to protest a majority feeling, would be way out in today’s suburbia. Emerson’s voice cried, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” And suburbia’s voices would chorus in reply, “Nothing is at last sacred but the collective will of the people.” The respect for the dissenter which characterized our earlier brand is gone with their veneration of ma­jority rule.

Justice Holmes is credited with having said, “Truth is the major­ity opinion of that nation which can lick all others”; but one senses the wryness with which the old man made such a cynical pro­nouncement. It comes pretty close to being what the young people in the sophisticated suburban schools believe with a straight face.

The Discouraging Prospects

It may be old-fogeyism to be concerned about suburban kids’ reactions to Emersonian thought. Maybe, after all, they are not to­morrow’s leaders. There has al­ways been in this country a tra­dition of leadership appearing, almost miraculously, from the back woods or hills. The most obvious example is a man from Kentucky and Illinois, who kept the country one. But the discrepancy today be­tween the kind of education avail­able in wealthy suburban schools and those of impoverished rural areas is greater than it used to be, and a good college education is now a sine qua non for anyone we would call a leader. The chances are that the boys and girls who reject Emerson as archaic or psychotic are the people who will take over their generation. If they do, they will take it over in teams and committees, and a right rea­sonableness will help the aspirant to qualify for the best team or committee. This prospect seems to have little about it that savors of greatness.

About greatness, two of Emer­son’s succinct aphorisms are, “To be great is to be misunderstood” and “Greatness appeals to the fu­ture.” Among the Beatitudes in the book of Matthew there is a parallel: “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice and be ex­ceeding glad: for great is your re­ward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were be­fore you.” But the children of to­day’s suburban dwellers would choose a different Beatitude, if any: “Blessed are the peace­makers; for they shall be called the children of God.” Peace­makers, to be sure, not in any in­ternational sense, but in the sense that lets the goalposts drop be­cause it is immature to defend them. Peacemakers who try to show recalcitrant objectors to a majority opinion the error of their ways.

It is no wonder, considering their conditioning, that these young people are hostile to Emer­son’s philosophy of individualism. “What I must do is all that con­cerns me,” Emerson said, “not what the people think.” To boys and girls who have been taught to venerate what the people think, these words raise a banner for chaos and anarchy. It may be that some of the seeds of anarchy are in Emerson’s words. But so are the seeds of integrity, and it is disheartening to see these lost.

“Trust Thyself,” and the Outlook Brightens

Old and middle-aged alarmists have always thought that the younger generation is going to pot, and I must confess qualms about my own observations. But they are temporary qualms, be­cause I subscribe to Emerson’s injunction, “Trust thyself.” And my qualms are about “tomorrow’s leaders.” Where will the people come from who will fight for a vision even though they may not find it popular at first? Where will the people come from who are will­ing to stake their careers on the validity of their own insights? In other words, where will real leadership come from?

Whether the adults of suburbia can do anything to provide the real leadership we will need in the seventies and eighties or not, I don’t know. Perhaps we could stop inculcating the supreme virtue of “cooperation.” Perhaps we could question “the Freudian Ethic” more than we do in our English and especially our social science courses. But these seem weak negatives. We need, ourselves, to believe in the sacredness of the integrity of our own minds—and to show that we believe in it. Stoutheartedness engenders stout­heartedness, as the song says which begins, “Give me ten men….” If parents and teachers can hear again the voice of the Athenaeum with some respect, we may gain a new audience for it in a new generation. It has dropped to a whisper now.




Ideas on Liberty

Revolt Against Nothingness

The great task of the present age, in the field of morality, is to convince common men (uncommon men never fell into the snare) of the inane foolishness which envelops this urge to revolt, and make them see the cheap facility, the meanness of it; even though we freely admit that most of the things revolted against deserve to be buried away. The only true revolt is creation—the revolt against nothing­ness. Lucifer is the patron saint of mere negativistic revolt.


Mission of the University