Beyond their time, Emerson’s thoughts on education have much to teach us even 150 years after they were written.

I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions. Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude.

But I hear the outcry which replies to this suggestion: – Would you verily throw up the reins of public and private discipline; would you leave the young child to the mad career of his own passions and whimsies, and call this anarchy a respect for the child’s nature? I answer, – Respect the child, respect him to the end, but also respect yourself. Be the companion of his thought, the friend of his friendship, the lover of his virtue, – but no kinsman of his sin. Let him find you so true to yourself that you are the irreconcilable hater of his vice and imperturbable slighter of his trifling.

I came across an excerpt of the above quote in John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, a seminal work in every sense of the word and a must read for educators, parents, and all those concerned with education generally (my next post(s) On Education will be on this book).

Emerson, wrote this in his Lectures and Biographical Sketches in 1863/64, a few years before Canada became, in the technical sense of the word, a country. It’s amazing to think that that far back, there were people who thought (and taught) in this fashion about youth and the purpose of education. The verse that strikes me the most, “Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions,” is especially meaningful. We should educate, not to replicate, but to evolve. Relying on Enlightenment thought around Nature, this idea is especially elucidated in Rousseau’s Émile. It is deeply insightful but Dewey also comments that: 


The so-called individualism of the eighteenth-century enlightenment was found to involve the notion of a society as broad as humanity, of whose progress the individual was to be the organ. But it lacked any agency for securing the development of its ideal as was evidenced in its falling back upon Nature.

Regardless of Dewey’s perceived shortcomings with regards to this train of thought (and they are valid), the idea of the individual as being important and of value outside the communal (and the communal’s aspirations for the individual) should be our primary concern and interest in Emerson’s words. Moreover, this philosophy’s idea of society being “as broad as humanity” is something that has very significant meaning in our interconnected world.  With the successive changes to educational thought, especially the reification of state educational institutions in the 19th C., the idea of the individual became subservient to larger nationalistic goals. This, again according to Dewey, was no where more apparent than in Germany with the nationalization of the school curriculum. In fact, it is perhaps no surprise that Hegel was very critical of Rousseauian thinking around education. However, it would be interesting to determine if Hegel’s ideas around dialectics could be reconciled with the ideas presented by Emerson (but I would certainly need to determine the possibility of this with much further reading)

What remains impressive is that this form of “liberal” educational thinking goes back over 150 years in history. Emerson’s words should serve as inspiration for parents and teachers alike.