Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose are not

biting lip

The preamble of thought is action. What is the preamble of action?

There goes in the world a notion, that the scholar should be a recluse, a valetudinarian, — as unfit for any handiwork or public labor, as a penknife for an ax. The so-called “practical men” sneer at speculative men, as if, because they speculate or see, they could do nothing. I have heard it said that the clergy, — who are always, more universally than any other class, the scholars of their day,— are addressed as women; that the rough, spontaneous conversation of men they do not hear, but only a mincing and diluted speech. They are often virtually disfranchised; and, indeed, there are advocates for their celibacy. As far as this is true of the studious classes, it is not just and wise. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.

by Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882)
from The American Scholar
An Oration Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, August 31, 1837
image – anna gutermuth

Then and Now

“Valetudinarian” is still a real word. Had to look it up, but it’s real. A valetudinarian is a weak person who worries about their health – the opposite of courageous souls who credit an attitude of gratitude with helping to retain vitality in the face of major illness.

We still have so-called “practical men” who sneer at the speculative, though, with the economy in shock after freefall, “practical” and “speculative” seem like the same thing to me!

Do we still expect the clergy to be more educated than the rest of us? Maybe. Often not. In the Middle Ages, monks produced most books. Today we have Espresso Book Machines that produce a 300 page “library quality” book in under four minutes with minimal human maintenance, no scholar required. After training, maintenance could probably be done without knowing how to read.

We no longer expect to address women differently, though women still make 76 cents for every dollar earned by men… and a list of America’s most powerful young CEOs includes no women.

We still have “scholarly classes,” but there have been changes! The literacy rate rose from 5% to 40% in Emerson’s lifetime. According to the CIA’s World Fact Book, US literacy today is up to 99%. Progress wasn’t a straight line, but it was a persistent one. Getting an education is time-consuming, expensive and fully funding state-supported schools is often unpopular with tax reformers and advocates of less government – maybe it always has been – but what other investment has such enduring and diverse values?

The Next Essential Literacy?

This line gave me pause: “Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man.” Action still counts, but how can I begin to say what I think is different today? Think of the revolution that just happened in Egypt. With mobile broadband access, information doesn’t have to come to us through people who have special attributes. Scholars, journalists, politicians and other authority figures can’t direct us without popular respect, because the free flow of information has changed the roles of gatekeepers forever.

Information can come to us from around the world in a flash, from Google, Social Media, friends on Skype, you name it… but, is it good information? We are swimming in data: discernment is essential. We must “know whose words are loaded with life, and whose are not.” Is a maturing of discernment the next literacy?

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