Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Power of Unique Potential

Caspar David Friedrich’s <em>Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, </em>1817
Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817

Readers know of my belief that our present educational system fails to effectively address the growth needs of our children.

Recently I researched Ralph Waldo Emerson, arguably our greatest philosopher and greatest 19th century writer. His works include his famous “Self Reliance” article, and he gave more than 1,500 speeches. Henry Thoreau was his protégé, with many outstanding Americans—like Walt Whitman and William James—following him. Harvard named a building after him.

The essence of his concept of self-reliance is “a commitment to making decisions based on one’s own native instinct, personal values, and primary experience over external advice, cultural conformity, and second-hand information.”

He believed in an individual’s potential so strongly, it determined his educational philosophy: “The great object of education is to acquaint the youthful man with himself to inspire in him self-trust.”

Clearly, Emerson deeply believed that America’s founding principles of individuality and equality must precede traditional educational efforts; a focus on developing youthful potentials must precede formal education.

If we were to devise a study to reaffirm this statement, consider: Thomas Edison did poorly in elementary school, dropped out and was home-schooled. The Wright Brothers were high school drop outs. Albert Einstein flunked algebra. Winston Churchill flunked his “form”—twice. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were college drop outs.

Clearly, these exceptional individuals were inwardly focused on something much deeper than their formal education.

We Americans believe everyone is born with that “something” and our challenge is indicated in some of Emerson’s quotes:

Insist on yourself; never imitate.”… “What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.” …”Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.”…. “Enthusiasm is the mother of effort, and without it nothing great was ever achieved”… “Do the thing we fear, and death of fear is certain.”

Emerson intensely encouraged youthful self-awareness and self-improvement; traditional education seeks youthful competition, always comparing oneself to others, which undermines Emerson’s inner focus. No matter how well a youth may compete, there is always a “faster gun in the West.”

Thanks to my parents—and in spite of alcoholism—I received a strong inner focus at home.

Still, growing up I felt that competitive school attitude on the playground with bullying. While my day-dreaming and imagination made me a poor student and my gullibility made me a target for jokes, I managed to keep my inner focus.

At age 23, having served in the Navy and then barely squeaked through Bowdoin College, I got married and found a job as a salesman. Then I decided I had a calling to teach and finally became an adult who took control of my life.

The point that Emerson is making—and that I then began to experience—is that all learning has meaning when it becomes an extension of your inner self, your unique potential, natural instincts, personal values and primary experience.

For example, Emerson, a prodigious reader, said only read the classics and books you enjoy in order to serve and expand your inner focus, and avoid being distracted by anything that does not enhance your inner self.

My life didn’t resemble any of those great individuals, but I think it reflects Emerson’s truth. I achieved a Master’s degree in Mathematics during summers, and earnestly read football, basketball and baseball books to support my coaching. I also sought outstanding coaches and math teachers.

After ten years, my experience and instincts told me traditional education was failing to serve youth. So I set out to find a better way, founding the Hyde School in Bath, Maine in 1966 to test the premise that every individual is gifted with a unique potential, which I sought to support with a new curriculum emphasizing character.

Experience and instincts taught us at Hyde how character is developed, with the biggest lesson being that the process needed to be centered on parents and family to last beyond school. Those same instincts and experience eventually taught us how to become experts in dealing with parental growth and family issues. Unique potential may seem limited, but it is empowering.

Imagine the society we would create if we would help all our children develop and gain confidence in their unique potential.

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