Emerson on Nature and Education


Perhaps no writer has as much to say about the connection between education and the natural world as Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was just re-reading his lecture, “The American Scholar,” and was struck by how relevant his ideas and language are to our “Schools as Ecosystems” project.
For example:

“To the young mind every thing is individual, stands by itself. By and by, it finds how to join two things and see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so…it goes on tying things together…discovering roots running under ground whereby contrary and remote things cohere and flower out of one stem.”

Isn’t this what real teaching– as opposed to test prep– is all about? At its core, our job is to help students recognize connections that were formerly hidden to them. Of course, we also have to present them with facts and formulas, but in isolation those facts and formulas lack substance. As Emerson writes, their significance lies in the hidden roots that connect them to “remote things.”

Emerson goes on to argue that these connections are not simply an aspect of the young mind’s academic development, but of a much deeper process:

“Thus to him, to this schoolboy under the bending dome of day, is suggested that he and it proceed from one root; one is leaf and one is flower…[Nature’s] beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind…the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim.”

As we discuss education policy and school reform, we should keep Emerson’s vision in mind. Learning is not simply a gathering of facts, and teachers are not information-delivery professionals. Our schools should be spaces where students learn to explore and appreciate the world around them– and to see their own connection to that world. Without that type of integrative perspective, all the facts in the world are simply academic.

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