03/28/07 - college

In today's excerpt - Ralph Waldo Emerson attends Harvard in 1821. Boston-born Emerson (1803-1882) was a distinguished philosopher, poet, essayist and lecturer. His father, a Unitarian minister, died when Emerson was eight years old, and his mother struggled to raise five boys—including a mentally retarded son. With the aid of several grants and part-time work, however, Emerson was able to enter Harvard College when he was fourteen:

"Emerson's Harvard was a small nondescript place, half boys school, half center for advanced study. It had fewer than two hundred fifty students. Emerson's class had sixty, with most of the boys coming from Massachusetts and New England, and with 27 percent of the students coming from elsewhere. There was a marked southern presence ... 18 percent were from South Carolina alone. In Emerson's day, a student commonly entered college at thirteen or fourteen, graduating at seventeen or eighteen. As a result, college life had at times a certain rowdiness. In Emerson's sophomore year, an epic food fight broke out on the first floor of University Hall. The fight quickly got beyond the throwing of food and almost all of the school's crockery was smashed. But it would be a mistake to assume this was the dominant tone of college life. Young people grew up faster then. Emerson could read before he was three; he taught his first class at fourteen. Girls were little women, boys were little men. The curriculum shows that Harvard was not like either the high school or college of today; it offered a combination of basic and advanced studies, functioning as a sort of early college.

"Emerson took the same set of required courses that everyone else did. He learned enough Greek to read both the Iliad and the New Testament. In Latin, he read Livy, Horace, Cicero, Juvenal and Persius, as well as Hugo Grotius's De veritate religionis Christianae. He studied algebra, plane geometry, analytical geometry, and spherical geometry. He took Roman history in his freshman year, and in his senior year he studied the principles of American constitutional government, reading the Federalist Papers. In science, he did physics and astronomy as a junior, chemistry as a senior. ...

"Back in the college yard, there was class football every day at noon. ...

"Emerson himself said later that even though you knew the university was hostile to genius, you sent your children there and hoped for the best."


Robert D. Richardson Jr.


Emerson: The Mind on Fire


University of California Press


Copyright 1995 by The Regents of the University of California


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