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.

He was born in 1803, the descendant of a long line of Protestant divines. His early life was troubled: a few days before his eighth birthday, his father died of stomach cancer; two of his brothers were tubercular. His own health was delicate. “I am not sick,” he said at 24, “I am not well; but luke-sick.”

His characteristic habits of introspection, and his loneliness, appeared early. At 18, he rigorously examined in his journal the “history of my heart.” “A blank, my lord,” the young Harvard student wrote. “I have not the kind affections of a pigeon. Ungenerous and selfish, cautious and cold, I yet wish to be romantic; have not sufficient feeling to speak a natural, hearty welcome to a friend or stranger. . . . There is not in the whole wide Universe of God (my relations to Himself I do not understand) one being to whom I am attached with warm and entire devotion . . . a true picture of a barren and desolate soul.”

He spent many hours hiding out in the woods. “I deliberately shut up my books in a cloudy July noon,” he confided to his journal in 1828, “put on my old clothes and old hat and slink away to the whortleberry bushes and slip with the greatest satisfaction into a little cowpath where I am sure I can defy observation. . . . I seldom enjoy hours as I do these. I remember them in winter; I expect them in spring.” On a fine night, the 23-year-old Emerson said, “the stars shed down their severe influences on me, and I feel a joy in my solitude that the merriment of vulgar society can never communicate.” In his rambles he tried to decipher the inarticulate language he overheard in the woods—a phenomenon common enough at that time in young people who had fed on such mystics as Emanuel Swedenborg, Jakob Boehme, and William Wordsworth and who, like them, sought to read in nature’s mystic book.

Emerson’s father had been pastor of Boston’s First Church, and after study at Harvard Divinity School Emerson himself became junior pastor of that city’s Second Church. In the same year he married Ellen Tucker. The pulpit he now occupied was one in which Increase Mather and Cotton Mather had, more than 100 years before, asserted the godly rule of a Congregational clergy. But by Emerson’s time New England Calvinism had lost the greatest part of its spiritual authority. In the early nineteenth century, many worshipers no longer wanted to hear that they were sinners in the hands of an angry God. Churches like Emerson’s—once Puritan strongholds—came to be dominated by Unitarians, reformers who wanted to purge Protestantism of its Calvinist dogmas.

Emerson, though he began his career as a Unitarian, soon became convinced that the reformers, in liberalizing Christianity, had impoverished it. Unitarianism, he said, was a “corpse-cold” creed: Luther “would cut his hand off sooner than write his theses against the Pope, if he suspected that he was bringing on with all his might the pale negations of Boston Unitarianism.” Just as Emerson began to waver in his Unitarian calling, his wife, Ellen, died after a struggle with tuberculosis. “My angel is gone to heaven this morning,” he wrote, “& I am alone in the world & strangely happy.” A month after her death he wrote in his journal, “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.”

In the course of the next year, Emerson resigned his pulpit and boarded a merchant ship for Europe. In Italy and France he tried to repair what he called the “miserable debility in which her death has left my soul.” In Britain he met his literary heroes, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle—all of them precursors of Emersonian Transcendentalism.

Emerson returned to America to find that the spiritual preoccupations of New England in its “sabbath morning” had given way to the broad daylight of the Yankee afternoon, bright with lust for accumulation. Two of his brothers, William and Edward, embraced the new dispensation; abjuring the pious traditions of their family, they studied law, William on Wall Street, Edward on State Street—under the supervision of Daniel Webster. Emerson himself, however, possessed in abundance the spiritual qualities radical Protestants knew as interior “light”; like his hero, Carlyle—that other great nineteenth-century secular preacher—he was deeply rooted in the old Protestant culture, fond of the “rigorous, scowling, ascetic creed” of the Puritans. Emerson was as intensely preoccupied with the state of his soul as any Calvinist. Many nonconforming Protestants, forever searching their Bibles and scrawling in their self-inquisitive journals, believed that in the intensity of inward contemplation a man could find, within himself, not only sin but also the light of God. This idea of an intuitive apprehension of divinity within left its mark on the future author of “Self-Reliance,” who would counsel his readers not to be “ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.”

His hereditary disdain for merely material things determined Emerson to set up as an independent lecturer and essayist, a churchless preacher. He bought a house in Concord, the village of his ancestors, remarried, and settled down to what seemed likely to be the life of a crank. His literary taste, however, was fastidious, and when he came to harangue his countrymen in secular sermons, his productions showed no trace of the quaintness of the Puritan or the naiveté of the home-schooled prophet.

At the same time his work betrayed a depth of ambition that Emerson himself was always reluctant to acknowledge. The writing with which he made his name was the work of a deliberate sensationalist. “Books are for the scholar’s idle times,” he provocatively informed the bookish Phi Beta Kappas of Harvard in his 1837 lecture, “The American Scholar.” The next summer he told the Harvard Divinity School that “the priest’s Sabbath has lost the splendor of nature; it is unlovely; we are glad when it is done.” People’s houses, he said, must be “very unentertaining, that they should prefer this thoughtless clamor.”

The fireworks in “Self-Reliance,” published in 1841, were less thunderous but more destructive. Grateful though I once was for this most beloved of Emerson’s essays, a number of the golden words are certainly outrageous. With the malice of suppressed ambition, Emerson advised his readers to ignore salutary customs and usages. The egotism implicit in the words, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” though it might suit a squire with an inherited income ($1,200 a year, in Emerson’s case, paid out of his dead wife’s estate), could only contribute to the ruin of those differently situated—the great majority of men who must learn humbly and patiently to earn their bread. But even as a young man, filled with gratitude for the Essays, I sensed a discrepancy between the laxity of Emerson’s dogmas and the diligence of his style. His manner is superior to his wisecracks—and so, one comes to see, is his philosophy.

At the heart of Emerson’s idea of self-reliance is the profoundly American idea that self-knowledge is the key to self-improvement and self-realization. Emerson argued that the object of education is to help a person find that in himself that is strong enough to be relied upon. This was not hokey ego-boostering; Emerson proposed quite specific methods of introspective learning, all of them aimed at discovering what is strong and valuable in one’s own mind.

The challenge was to make these methods of self-betterment credible to Americans who were no longer immersed in the old Puritan traditions of self-examination and self-culture. Emerson turned to the ancient Greeks, whose philosophy was in vogue in the Boston intellectual circles in which he grew up. Today the Greek Revival in nineteenth-century America conjures up images of delicious buildings—the churches of Charleston or the porticoed mansions of New England—as well as some ludicrous art, as lapsed Puritans acted out their fantasies under austere Ionic porches. Lydia Maria Child’s novel Philothea depicted a brilliant courtesan of Pericles, while Hiram Powers’s sculpture of the Greek Slave, naked and chained by her dainty wrists, made him a celebrity. Emerson, by contrast, a much more serious child of the Greek Revival, had as a student made himself “acquainted with the Greek language and antiquities and history with long and serious attention and study,” and he used the Greek heritage in a profound and original way, mobilizing a vocabulary of self-help that derived from Plato to rephrase the Protestant idea of self-improvement in fresh and strikingly American terms.

Like Goethe—who once said, “All that is outside is also inside”—Emerson seized on the Greek idea that the natural world, rightly studied, unlocks the soul, and that the soul, once opened, yields truths about the moral structure of the universe. “The ancient Greeks,” Emerson said, “called the world κοσμος, beauty.” In his dialogue Gorgias, Plato has Socrates argue that the soul, like the world, possesses its own cosmos, its own pattern of beauty and order. Yet very often, Emerson said, we become conscious of this interior order only when we confront something in our everyday life that startles us into self-perception. “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” Emerson wrote, “how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!” But however familiar nature is, men still feel its transcendent power, along with a corresponding intimation of transcendence in themselves. In the first chapter of his first book, Nature, which he published at 33, Emerson said that “crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”

What is outside, Emerson believed, teaches us to understand and make use of what is inside. He had experienced, in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, an epiphany: gazing on the “bewildering series of animated forms” displayed there, he was struck by the fact that no species of plant or animal life was “so grotesque, so savage, or so beautiful but was an expression of some property inherent in man the observer,—an occult relation between the very scorpion and the man.” “I feel,” he said, “the centipede in me,—cayman, carp, eagle, and fox.” If a man thought hard enough about the natural architecture that awed and inspired him, he would find, Emerson maintained, that it impressed him precisely because it disclosed to him an answering architecture in himself. Emerson spoke of the outer world as “this shadow of the soul, or other me. . . . Its attractions are the keys which unlock my thoughts and make me acquainted with myself.”

Such experiences are so common, Emerson observed, that we tend to dismiss them. “A man should learn,” he advises in “Self-Reliance,” “to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across the mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.” If, Emerson said, you have the courage to “believe your own thought,” you will come to credit the truth of your intuitions, and in doing so you will catch a glimpse of something more. You may not have the intensely developed vision of another of Emerson’s heroes, Dante, who in his ultimate apprehension saw, “like a wheel revolving uniformly,” the force that “moves the sun and the other stars.” But you will find, Emerson said, that there is an idea of order at work both in the universe and your own soul.

The practical Yankee in every American is tempted to scoff at Emerson’s Platonic idea that all “the circles of the visible heavens represent as many circles in the rational soul.” But follow to the root the “strange sympathies” you felt in a summer twilight or a January dawn and you will come closer, Emerson says, to understanding this: that beneath your own mind’s “inharmonious particulars” lies a “musical perfection, the Ideal journeying always with us, the heaven without rent or seam.” The wise man, according to Emerson, discovers, in his efforts to become better acquainted with himself, that he is not an accident of biology, a chance concatenation of atoms; the very wind whispers to him that he has a purpose and a destiny.

When it comes to trying to find out the deeper order of the self, nothing, Emerson said, beats poetry. The true poet is able to communicate his intimations of order with living words—words that “would bleed,” Emerson says, if you cut them. Poetry, he argued, “unlocks our chains,” and the “poets are thus liberating gods.” A master poet like Shakespeare is a supreme “translator of things in your [own] consciousness.” Notwithstanding “our utter incapacity to produce any thing like Hamlet and Othello, see the perfect reception this wit, and immense knowledge of life, and liquid eloquence find in us all.” Shakespeare, Emerson said, “saw the splendor of meaning that plays over the visible world; knew that a tree had another use than for apples, and corn another than for meal, and the ball of the earth, than for tillage and roads: that these things bore a second and finer harvest to the mind, being emblems of its thoughts, and conveying in all their natural history a certain mute commentary on human life.”

Yet words by themselves can do only so much to open up the mind: music, for Emerson, is as essential to poetry as language. He followed the Greeks in arguing that a poem, like the soul itself, resembles a living organism, a pattern of reason (logos) ordered by rhyme and rhythm. Like the Greeks, Emerson insisted that the music of poetry is itself a profound educational force, and he took to heart Plato’s assertion that the rhythms and harmonies of poetry “sink furthest into the depths of the soul and take hold of it most firmly by bringing it nobility and grace.” Any parent’s experience bears out this educational truth: give a two- or three-year-old a line of verse or a nursery rhyme, and he will quickly learn to mimic its rhythm. The words are harder, but they, too, come—and come that much more quickly where the rhyme and meter serve as a bridge to the language.

It “is not metres, but metre-making argument”—word and music together—“that makes a poem,” Emerson said: “a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” Thus the virtue, for Emerson, of the classic poets; their patterns of words and rhythms form a miniature cosmos, “an abstract or epitome of the world.” Because its structure resembles that of both the universe and the soul, poetry “throws light upon the mystery of humanity.” His own ambition was to collect the most evocative of these poetic utterances, a register of the “spermatic, prophesying, man-making words.”

The poet is one teacher in Emerson’s school of self-reliance, bringing out all the self’s latent power; the hero is the other. “The whole value of history, of biography,” he explains, “is to increase my self-trust, by demonstrating what man can be and do.” Each “admirable genius is but a successful diver in the sea whose floor of pearls is all your own.” Emerson is not so foolish as to claim that every man can be a hero of the caliber of George Washington, of Scipio or Pericles, of John Hampden or Pitt the Elder; but he insists that by studying the lives and characters of these civic heroes even a smaller man will enlarge himself by learning what man in general—and therefore a particular individual—is capable of achieving. “But what strikes us in the fine genius,” he said, “is that which belongs of right to every one.” A great man’s life, Emerson argued, reveals “some reality in our secret experience.” The value of the hero’s example is that it impels the young person who studies it to discover his own virtues, powers, and weaknesses: “All that Shakespeare says of the king, yonder slip of a boy that reads in the corner feels to be true of himself.”

In its emphasis on self-knowledge gained through the study of poetry and heroes, Emerson’s idea of self-reliance is poles apart from the modern notion of self-esteem. He believed, as most Americans do, that there is in every man a restless desire to better himself, along with an innate desire to transcend unworthy impulses. The modern school of self-esteem, however, sees no need to transcend, no reason to make what Emerson called an “effort at the perfect”—to find out the best and strongest places in one’s soul. The modern proponents of self-esteem argue that the undeveloped self, however callow, should be praised as it is. In contrast to Emerson’s work, the primitivist ethic of the self-esteem movement promotes not the discovery but the abdication of the self.

In coming up with a theory of self-reliance, Emerson gave fresh expression to an ideal long at the heart of this country’s approach to educating kids. Know yourself, Emerson says, know what man can do, and you will be able to do the work for which you were made. Emerson’s contemporary, William Holmes McGuffey, another child of both American Protestantism and the Greek Revival, embodied the Emersonian spirit in the brilliant curricula he designed for the nation’s schools. A clergyman who taught Latin and Greek at Miami University in Ohio, McGuffey published the first of his celebrated Readers in 1836. By 1879 some 60 million copies of America’s premier school textbooks were in print.

Like Emerson, McGuffey believed that poetry, both moral and civic, is crucial to education. Rhythm mattered to him hardly less than it did to Emerson. The poetry that fills his Readers—generous servings of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope—was meant to be recited: each Reader begins with elaborate guides to “articulation,” “inflection,” “accent and emphasis,” as well as “instructions for reading verse,” and each poetry extract is marked with a complex system of accents to indicate emphasis and meter. The stress marks might seem quaint to us; but McGuffey believed that rhythm and harmony have not only an aesthetic but also a moral value. Shopkeepers in large shopping malls have discovered the same truth. Distressed by the crowds of unruly adolescents who gather there, they have learned that nothing drives away obstreperous kids as effectively as Mozart. The propriety of melody and harmony subverts entirely the teens’ efforts at misrule. McGuffey, too, understood the civilizing power of rhythm, and he was not about to allow his kids to escape the orderly influence of the great poets and music-makers of their civilization.

With a quintessentially American faith that runs from Ben Franklin through Emerson and Abraham Lincoln, McGuffey orchestrated the music of his Readers toward a single end: the stimulation of his students’ desire for self-improvement. “The education, moral and intellectual, of every individual,” one of his utterly Emersonian lessons reads, “must be, chiefly, his own work. Rely upon it, that the ancients were right; both in morals and intellect, we give the final shape to our characters, and thus become, emphatically, the architects of our own fortune.”

In Emersonian fashion, McGuffey tried to guide the student’s inchoate desire to better himself. His primers are, like the early Greek poetry itself, intended to be shapers of ethos, character. The Readers praise hard work and thrift; they warn against intemperance, gambling, and procrastination; they teach the importance of patience, self-discipline, perseverance, and courage.

Yet the Readers are not quite the caricatures of Victorian morality one might expect. Man “is born unto trouble,” one of his lessons (taken from the Bible) says, and God “woundeth” souls. Life has its full cup of sorrow—is a state of “trial and discipline,” at times a “prisonhouse of pain.” But even as McGuffey glances at the abyss, he invokes John Milton’s faith in the possibility of a “dark ascent” through chaos to the light that “shine[s] inward” and illuminates every mind.

This is strong stuff for kids; unlike so many modern educators, McGuffey doesn’t patronize. He tells kids what the standards are and how high and inflexible the hurdles can be. At the same time, he introduces students to their civilization’s rich inheritance and to the different ways in which men have tried to understand themselves and their nature. There is more knowledge of the human heart in any one of McGuffey’s lessons than in whole chapters of modern textbooks.

As in Emerson’s work, the poet and the hero are the presiding genii. McGuffey gives his students Rousseau on Jesus and Socrates, Portia’s judgment in Shylock’s suit (“the quality of mercy is not strained”), Byron on the battle of Waterloo, Doctor Johnson’s comparison of Pope and Dryden, Gray’s Elegy, Daniel Webster’s reply to Hayne, Patrick Henry’s speech in the Virginia Convention (“give me liberty´, or GIVE ME DEATH` ”), David’s lament for his son (“O my son Absalom` my son`, my son Absalom` ! would to God I had died for thee´ ”), and the catastrophe of the Essex, sunk by the great whale (the “men died, one after another, and their survivors lived upon their flesh”). The student is shown John Adams urging Congress to declare the American colonies independent of Britain, and an unforgettable picture of Pitt the Elder, enfeebled by age and gout, courageously rising in the House of Lords to denounce Britain’s shortsighted policy toward the colonies (“You can not, my lords, you can not conquer America. . . . If I were an American, as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I never would lay down my arms; never—NEVER—NEVER!”). Reading McGuffey’s Readers, one comes to see that it is we, not the Victorians, who are weakly sentimental when it comes to educating children. By showing his kids just how hard life can be, McGuffey gives them the incentive to develop the strength to endure.

McGuffey, who had made bad bargains with his publishers, profited little from his Readers—he received a barrel of ham at Christmas—and died in obscurity. Emerson became a celebrity and one of the most successful lecturers and authors of his time, with disciples not only at home but around the world. It’s not hard to see why. For all the intensity of his own self-involvement, Emerson managed to help others discover their own instinct for greatness of soul. And for this they were grateful. “When he was breaking [with age] and I was still young,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes recalled in 1917, “I saw him on the other side of the street and ran over and said to him, 'If I ever do anything, I shall owe a great deal of it to you,' which was true. He was one of those who set one on fire.”

It was perhaps inevitable that so successful an intellectual entrepreneur would be vulgarized. Had his precepts been scrupulously followed, we might even now have a school curriculum that, in addition to teaching necessary skills, awakens students’ minds through techniques that implicate all the subterraneous operations of the psyche—techniques that touch the dream faculties, stimulate the formation of conscience, and rouse the mind to virtuous emulation. But in the last century Emerson’s ideas fell victim to distortion by progressive educators, who, like the philosopher John Dewey, sought to turn America’s prophet of self-reliance into an apologist for their own program of social reform.

Dewey is worth pondering more closely. His ideal of the “child-centered” school is a caricature of Emerson’s idea of the school that teaches a kid that through hard work he can become a fully formed and self-reliant person. Where Emerson advocated a program of self-discovery illuminated by the work of classic poets and the lives of great men, Dewey fostered youthful complacency. Instead of encouraging kids to find out the depths of their souls, Dewey was content to let them navigate the shallows.

This was in line with his politics, which were those of a leveler—a leveler down, not up, like Emerson. Born in Vermont in 1859, Dewey was a forerunner of the celebrity academic, the engagé intellectual. As a writer and philosopher he never rose above mediocrity, but as a passionate advocate of “democratic socialism,” he succeeded in transforming America’s schools—though not exactly into the instruments of social reform he had envisioned.

In books like Democracy and Education, Dewey turned the Emersonian ideal of self-reliance into a puerile theory of student liberation. The child, he argued, must be freed from the “autocratic” authority of the teacher, from the tyranny of artificial forms sanctioned by ancient usage, from the “chain-gang procedures” of traditional schooling. He called for replacing the older, liberal methods of education with a school in which the child would direct his own education through spontaneous, lightly supervised play. McGuffey was to give way to Rousseau, even to Robespierre. The Emersonian curriculum—grounded in the study of the best that has been thought, said, and done—was to be scrapped in favor of one in which the child would decide the subjects suitable for his study.

“As long as any topic makes an immediate appeal” to the student, Dewey wrote, it might properly be included in the curriculum. He utterly failed to grasp that the ability to choose wisely is not innate but acquired through the discipline of learning. He stubbornly maintained that education should be rooted in “satisfactory activity” and that the most satisfactory activity is that which the child likes best. It is difficult to conceive of a more effective way of limiting kids’ horizons. Want to devote your studious hours to the art of Britney or P. Diddy? Go right ahead; Dewey abhorred the very idea of a “curriculum,” an orderly course of study designed to strengthen the mind’s powers. He eschewed the poets and heroes who have long been central to liberal education. When, in the 1930s, University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins urged a return to the Great Books, Dewey attacked him as a tyrant.

In justification of his program Dewey pointed to Emerson’s sayings, but he read Emerson superficially and overlooked entirely the heart of Emerson’s idea of self-reliance, the belief that the self can achieve its fullest development only through immersion in nature, poetry, and biography. Spontaneous play may indeed be essential to learning; but more important is the hard study that prepares young people for the intricate art of thinking.

In the aftermath of Democracy and Education, progressive educators institutionalized Dewey’s impoverished vision of the self. Great men and great poets were out; “useful” education was in—of the kind recommended by the National Education Association, which in its 1918 manifesto, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, called for the replacement of the traditional liberal arts curriculum in American high schools with one devoted to vocational training and the attainment of “real life” skills—as though the culture of books and heroes were somehow fake. The NEA’s study helped prepare the way for high school classes in everything from hairdressing to home economics.

Once the Deweyesque seed—which Paul Goodman described in 1960 as student “participation and self-rule,” “group therapy as a means of solidarity,” “permissiveness in all animal behavior and interpersonal expression”—was planted in the home-economics classroom, the idea of public education as a process of helping young minds discover the best that is within them through exposure to the best that has been thought, said, and done came to an end. The older model of education gave way to a therapeutic approach, which culminated in the establishment, in California, of a legislative task force to promote self-esteem by, among other things, weaving it into the state’s “total education program.” Despite unremitting ridicule, other states adopted the California model for their own schools, and before long, conservative columnist John Leo was describing self-esteem pedagogy as “the dominant educational theory in the country.” By now it has pervaded every corner of educational theory; a recent search of the education-journal literature turned up over 5,000 articles that focused on self-esteem. The trendy theories of Carol Gilligan, concerned with the self-esteem of girls, and of Howard Gardner, which stress the existence of “multiple intelligences” that allow everyone to achieve something to be proud of, be it dancing or sports, are only the most recent iterations of this pervasive idea.

The notion that if you feel good about yourself you will be able to achieve something worthwhile, though it contains a grain of truth, puts the cart before the horse. The soundest foundation of self-esteem is genuine achievement, and numerous studies have shown no measurable benefit from the self-esteem movement in the schools. Even so, under the banner of self-esteem, schools have dumbed down their curricula, ended gifted-and-talented programs, stopped tracking kids, emphasized Dewey-style group projects and groupthink rather than individual achievement, and done away with valedictorians—because rewarding success might make some kids feel bad. Yet if the pupil is continually made to feel good about his unformed self—in all its narrowness of horizon and aspiration—what becomes of the quintessential American faith that a boy can be born in a log cabin, learn his sums by the light of the fireplace, and grow up to be president—or be born in a Harlem tenement, and grow up to be secretary of state?

True, Emerson did use the word “self-esteem” (so did Milton in Paradise Lost). But how fallen and changed is the educrats’ version of the concept! Emerson argued that such esteem is justified only where a person has done the hard work of developing a self worthy to be esteemed: such esteem must, in Milton’s words, be “grounded on just and right / Well manag’d. . . .” By contrast, the modern philosophers of self-esteem encourage a complacent adoration of the unperfected self.

Still, we can’t entirely absolve Emerson of culpability for our educational debacle. In his writing he laid himself open to the misreadings of Dewey and the progressive educators. The weakness of Emerson’s prose is its vagueness, its ethereal remoteness from the concrete. For every living sentence there are ten dead ones; and Emerson, unwilling to bind himself closely to flesh and bone, is always sliding into frivolity. Unbuttressed by any solid masonry, many even of his choicest aphorisms cannot bear their moral weight.

But the problem goes deeper than glibness. In his loosest passages, Emerson tried to escape what was hard and true in the vision of his Puritan ancestors. He flirted with the freedom of absolute relativism. “Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this,” he asserted somewhat casually in “Self-Reliance.” He dreamed of a let-it-all-hang-out liberation. The “only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it,” he held, and went on to vapor about “the sacred germ of [a man’s] instinct,” which was “not inferior but superior to his will.” But of course it was one thing for this descendant of the Puritans, who inherited all their temperate habits, to divert himself with such fantasies; enshrine them as dogmas in a modern school—or in modern culture—and you have the makings of a catastrophe.

In his most lucid moments, however, Emerson disavowed his Dionysian rhetoric. He acknowledged that there must be limits to liberation: he conceded the reality of evil and the inescapability of sin and suffering. “Don’t trust children with edge tools,” he wrote. “Don’t trust man, great God, with more power than he has, until he has learned to use that little better. What a hell we should make of the world if we could do what we would!” And more darkly: “The violations of the laws of nature by our predecessors and contemporaries are punished in us also. The disease and deformity around us certify the infraction of natural, intellectual, and moral laws, and often violation on violation to breed such compound misery. A lock-jaw that bends a man’s head back to his heels, hydrophobia, that makes him bark at his wife and babes, insanity, that makes him eat grass; war, plague, cholera, famine, indicate a certain ferocity in nature which, as it had its inlet by human crime, must have its outlet by human suffering. Unhappily, no man exists who has not in his own person become, to some amount, a stockholder in the sin, and so made himself liable to a share in the expiation.” In order to figure out why men suffered—in order to figure out why he suffered, especially after the death of his five-year-old son Waldo in 1842—Emerson turned to his Puritan forebears. Men are sinners, and so must be sufferers.

Although Emerson is often considered the most cheerful of philosophers, surely Nietzsche, who venerated him, could never have loved a wholly sunny man. In his most despondent moods, Emerson came close to equating self-reliance with utter isolation. Man was alone: his solitude was at once his joy and his punishment. “The soul,” he said, “is not twin-born, but the only begotten. We believe in ourselves, as we do not believe in others.” The “great and crescive self, rooted in absolute nature, supplants all relative existence, and ruins the kingdom of mortal friendship and love. Marriage (in what is called the spiritual world) is impossible, because of the inequality between every subject and every object.” “There will be the same gulf between every me and thee, as between the original and the picture.”

Not surprisingly, Emerson’s inability to see a way out of the prison of the self complicated his relations with those around him. We know little about his second marriage, but he did aver that “Love is temporary, and ends with marriage.” “I think then the writer ought not to be married; ought not to have a family,” he wrote in his journal at 37. “I think the Roman Church, with its celibate clergy and its monastic cells was right.”

Friends, too, were a distraction. Though “I prize my friends,” he said, “I cannot afford to talk with them and study their visions, lest I lose my own.” Henry David Thoreau lived in Emerson’s house for a time, in his own room at the top of the stairs; Emerson gave him permission to build, on his property, the cabin that Walden made famous. But Thoreau and Emerson were never exactly close. “I spoke of friendship,” Emerson wrote in his journal, “but my friends and I are fishes in our habit. As for taking Thoreau’s arm, I should as soon take the arm of an elm tree.” He disparaged his tenant’s pretensions to equality of intellect. “I am very familiar with his thoughts,” Emerson said of Thoreau: “they are my own quite originally drest.” And no less damningly: “If I only knew Thoreau, I should think cooperation of good men impossible.”

One must, Emerson said, “embrace solitude as a bride,” for “souls never touch their objects.” “I know,” he said, “that the world I converse with in the city and in the farm, is not the world I think. We dress our garden, eat our dinners, discuss the household with our wives, and these things make no impression, are forgotten next week; but in the solitude to which every man is returning, he has a sanity and revelations, which in his passage to new worlds he will carry with him.” In its most extreme form Emerson’s self-reliance degenerates into solipsism, each man helplessly imprisoned in his own impenetrable cell.

We have to hope that he was wrong. Education rests on the idea that the teacher can touch his student’s psyche. Emerson might have needed little enough help from others in order to fulfill his destiny, but no man, however great, accomplishes anything by himself. The good offices of scores of others—parents, teachers, friends, relatives—go into making a single person even modestly self-reliant. With all his depth of insight, Emerson had little grasp of the human interconnectedness that creates the kind of self-reliant men and women he admired.

The good news is that, after a century of disastrous progressive reforms in schools, some educators are beginning to rediscover the wisdom of Emerson’s methods. We may yet see a return to teaching that promotes self-reliance by encouraging rather than repressing the American striving for achievement, that opens up the mind through the communication of “heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history.” The “better part of every man” awakens to such teaching and feels, in Emerson’s words: “This is my music; this is myself.”

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