“The Morning Hope of the Teacher”: Ralph Waldo Emerson as Schoolmaster
Published in Emerson Society Papers 33, no. 1 (Spring 2022).
Emerson is known to history as a writer and lecturer, an abolitionist, philosopher, and one-time Unitarian minister. But before he earned notoriety for any of those things, he was a teacher. Emerson’s biographers have given relatively little attention to this aspect of his life. Where they have, they have focused on passages in Emerson’s letters which show that he took little pleasure in school-teaching. He brooded gloomily about it occasionally and disparaged his own ability as an educator. But Emerson’s years as a teacher had an important impact on his outlook. The importance of Emerson’s experience in schools bears reappraisal.
Emerson earned his living teaching in schools between graduating from Harvard at the age of 18 in the Spring of 1821 and joining the ministry in 1826. He was following a family tradition. His own father, William Emerson, similarly taught school between finishing Harvard and becoming a minister. The eldest of Emerson’s brothers, William, named for his father (who died when the boys were young), taught school in Kennebunk, Maine, after his own graduation in 1818, using his earnings to help bankroll his brothers’ education. Emerson’s uncle, Samuel Ripley, ran a boarding school in Waltham and Emerson occasionally taught lessons there while he was studying at Harvard, as early as age 14.
William Emerson had returned from Kennebunk by 1821 and established a School for Young Ladies in the Emerson family home at 26 Federal Street, Boston. Ralph Waldo Emerson taught there, first as William’s assistant. After William’s departure to study theology in Göttingen, Germany in 1823, Emerson was in full charge of the school, which had about 24 female pupils. Emerson moved with his mother to Roxbury in 1823 but continued to run the school in rented rooms behind Trinity Church on the corner of Summer and Hawley Street in central Boston. Meanwhile his cousin, George B. Emerson, had moved to Boston to become the principal of the city’s English High School for boys in 1821. He opened his own girls’ school two years later. George went on to become one of the most prominent educators in the United States and a major player in the growth of the public school system in Boston as the city’s population exploded with immigrants from the 1820s onward (Schultz).
Emerson shut down his young ladies’ school early in 1825 and enrolled as a divinity student at Harvard in preparation for the ministry. Financially, the school had been a success. He had accumulated more than two thousand dollars, enough money to enable him to pay his debts and move back to Cambridge without the same burdens of poverty that had hung heavily on him during his earlier studies at Harvard. While recovering from an illness that nearly rendered him blind, he taught in a boys’ school for several months in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, in the autumn of 1825 and then moved to Roxbury and carried on teaching there in January 1826. When he went back to Cambridge later in that year, he taught there too. Now an experienced teacher, he was seen by one of his pupils—the brother of Oliver Wendell Holmes—as a “king in his dominion” (Rusk 108, 116).
Thus, by the age of 23, Ralph Waldo Emerson had spent the better part of five years as a schoolmaster. Adding to this his own years of schooling first at Boston Latin School and then at Harvard, he spent more than a quarter of his life in schools. There is much to show that he did not enjoy the life of a teacher. In 1821 he called himself a “dull mortal,” whom “the fates have condemned to school-keeping” (L 1:103). In a letter from 1822 to his former classmate, John Boynton Hill, he wrote, “I am (I wish it were otherwise) keeping a school & assisting my venerable brother lift the truncheon against the fair-haired daughters of this raw city” (L 1:106). In another he wrote that the “duties [of a teacher] were never congenial with my disposition” (Rusk 108). But much of the frustration was not with the work itself, but rather with anxieties about his future. He was reading voraciously when not teaching, preparing for the life of a writer, orator, and minister to which he aspired. His disparaging comments about keeping school stopped featuring his letters once he had made his mind up to study divinity. Later, as a minister, he took up a position on the Boston Schools Committee (Richardson 41-5, 54-5).
Many of his most famous essays and speeches such as “The American Scholar,” (1837) are preoccupied with the concept of education, which he viewed in an idealised form. But the contrast between the ideal and the real (a philosophical touchstone in Emerson’s writing) was something he felt keenly regarding the practice of school teaching. He seldom referred directly to his long experience of keeping school in his writings. But he did return to the topic late in his life. In 1876, at the age of 73, he delivered a short address at the centenary celebration of the Boston Latin School reminiscing on his own days as a schoolboy (New York Times, November 11, 1876). It may be this that prompted him to write a longer essay, “Education,” which he delivered at Concord and Phillips Exeter Academy in 1879. His mental faculties were in decline at the time, but perhaps this indicates that Emerson felt he stood on firm ground on this topic at least.
The essay was finally published posthumously in Lectures and Biographical Sketches. In it, he wrote that the main object of education “should be a moral one” (W 10:135). It should “teach self-trust” and inspire an appreciation for the life of the mind which connects the individual to a transcendent whole (W 10:135). Emerson believed that “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil” and advises those who seek to educate that by “tampering and thwarting and too much governing” a student will be held down, and their development stunted. He believed in treating students “as the high-born candidates of truth and virtue.” (W 10:143, 151).
Emerson admits that converting this ideal into actual application in a school is extremely difficult. The numbers of pupils and mix of attributes, motivations, and behaviours makes the life of the idealistic teacher impossible: “Each [student] requires so much consideration, that the morning hope of the teacher, of a day of love and progress, is often closed at evening by despair” (W 10:152). Faced with the realities of managing sometimes unruly pupils, even the wisest must resort to means of control and punishment “in lieu of that wise genial providential influence they had hoped … to adopt” (W 10:152). He admits that he is “utterly at a loss in suggesting particular reforms in our ways of teaching” (W 10:156). But he tries to offer some advice to educators. He tells them to enforce the rules and ensure that there is an ordered environment in the classroom, but at the same time to “smuggle in a little contraband wit, fancy, imagination, thought” (W 10:157). In other words, keep order but allow some fruitful chaos. With this, a potentially stifling environment can become a positive and uplifting one. A teacher can maintain good standards, but can also illuminate, educate, and inspire.
“Education” is a fitting bookend to Emerson’s career as a public intellectual, bringing his mind back to where his career started, in schools. Education and teaching were perhaps a bigger part of the making of Emerson than we have hitherto understood. There are interesting prospects for future research into how Emerson and his schools fit in the wider history of education in Boston, New England, and America more widely. In a life that has been studied in minute detail over the last century and a half, there is still much to learn about Emerson the educator.
“The Boston Latin School,” New York Times, November 11, 1876
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Education,” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Lectures and Biographical Sketches (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903), 124-160
The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Ralph L. Rusk, Vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939)
Richardson, Robert D., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)
Rusk, Ralph L., The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949)
Schultz, Stanley K., The Culture Factory: Boston Public Schools, 1789-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973)