Can You Teach an Old Essay New Tricks?

Adam Gittin, News Editor

When I was walking through Tappan Square the other morning, not at all minding the puddles, I stumbled over a disembodied marble hand.

All around in the grass there were broken pieces of statuary. Half a torso, a hunk of thigh and the noseless face of a bearded man joined me in the shadow of an elm. No plaques were needed to identify whose knee or elbow joint lay there, for I recognized these relics as the fragments of our predecessors — the cracked faces from history books, the arms that swaddled us in layers of insulating education. I wanted to shatter the disunited body parts on the ground and pave new paths for us to walk with their gravel remains. Unfortunately, I hadn’t the heart to do so.

Besides, I was running late for brunch.

I know people don’t often write like this anymore. I recognize that it is contradictory to use, as I have, an outmoded form to argue for the demolition of outmoded forms. But if you gathered anything from my metaphor, then you’ve proven that we can still make meaning from old sounds. And is that not the activity in which we engage every day at this college? As students, we are taught the established methods, the traditions of societies and the ideas of previous generations — all of which are well worth learning — and then we are tasked with making the new methods, traditions and ideas. I ask that we not forget this second step, that we not stop at merely knowing, but revise what is known through our actions.

This is easier said than done, but self-reflection can initiate the process. For most of my time as a student here, I’ve kept an essay in the back of my mind that encourages questioning and renovating your own thinking: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Circles.” I read the essay in my first-year seminar, and it seems appropriate that in my final semester, I am again studying “Circles” for a class — taught by the same Professor of English, T.S. McMillin.

In “Circles,” Emerson understands both the natural world and the individual self metaphorically as sequences of circles within, encompassing and abutting one another. The essay is frustratingly abstract and preachy at times, but also humorous and insightful. Though we lack space for adequate context, here is a passage in which Emerson mockingly sums up — with 19th-century flair and gendered language — a good deal of what the essay addresses: “There is no outside, no enclosing wall, no circumference to us. The man finishes his story, — how good! how final! how it puts a new face on all things! He fills the sky. Lo! on the other side rises also a man, and draws a circle around the circle we had just pronounced the outline of the sphere.”

Once again, it might seem contradictory for me to try and provoke forward thinking by referencing a 175-year-old essay. However, I don’t think making progress involves disregarding past thoughts, but instead using those ideas to pave new roads leading onward. We can and should actively consider how we draw our circles and how we look at our work and at each other.

There’s much to prospect for in Emerson and in all of our studies, but if the goal is to somehow affect change in the world, then it is up to us to make what we learn here relevant to how we want to lead our lives. I wouldn’t dare tell you how to do that for yourself. I want not one person reading this to be satisfied with these ideas, but to instead consider as we move toward finals: How do I make what I do matter?