Yesterday in the freshman honors seminar we were discussing Emerson’s The American Scholar Address, in which he calls for a new kind intellectual heroism. At the time he gave the address, 1837, there was some question about the scholarly mettle of Americans. Giants like Hegel, Goethe, and Hume had lately bestridden the European intellectual stage.

So Emerson’s task was to call for a new kind of scholar, one as at home on the brawny frontier as the lecture hall. This scholar-- dubbed with the progressive tense name of Man Thinking--was to be influenced primarily by contact with nature and the seminal influence of the great minds of the past. Emerson famously warned against slavish adoration of books, arguing that “one must be an inventor to read well.” He also demanded his scholar lead an active life. No bookworms or note-taking recluses for him. Man Thinking was to be as much a brawniac as a brainiac.

So I asked the students how we might design a curriculum for the creation of Man-Thinking. One idea was for the college to buy several isolated cabins in some beautiful wilderness and require all graduates to spend a month alone there with nothing but a shelf of five or six great works and a fat blank journal. No computers, no cell phones, Facebook, Twitter , I-pods or TV. Just you, a few well-chosen books and nature. You could read the books or not. That was up to you. There would be a month’s worth of food and a pile of unchopped fire wood (for the active life component). At the end of the month you would return to campus, hand in your journal, and that’s it. Course over.

Now I find this a deeply attractive idea, as did a few of my students, but you should have seen the look of horror that appeared on some faces. “You’d have to leave me a cell phone—just for emergencies,” one student insisted. "What if there were an accident or someone needed to reach me?"

“Could we make just one call a day?”
"Why allow books but ban an I-pod? It would be great to have your tunes while you were cruising through the woods."

“Why would anyone pay tuition for that?”

(Sigh) So much for the new American brawniac.


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