The American Scholar by Emerson Discussion Questions

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

'~'The American Scholar'~' was a speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson, in which he explored the need of the United States to define its own intellectual community as distinct from Europe's. These questions can help your students explore this speech and its argument.

The American Scholar

The American Scholar is the name given to a speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson, later transcribed into an essay. This speech was presented at Cambridge to Harvard College's Phi Beta Kappa Society on August 31, 1837. This speech has since been upheld as one of the great summations of Emerson's views on transcendentalism and American identity. The following questions are designed for high school students, but can easily be adapted into younger classrooms if desired.

Content and Organization

  • In one sentence, what would you say ''The American Scholar'' is about? What is the purpose of this speech?
  • How does Ralph Waldo Emerson begin his speech? How does he introduce the main ideas of the speech? What does Emerson identify as the goal of this speech?
  • What are the two states that Emerson identifies for people's lives? What is the divided or degenerate state? What defines this state? What are the symptoms of this state? How does this contrast to the right mind? What defines the right mind? How does Emerson define this state?
  • How do the different states, as explained by Emerson, relate to the scholars of the Phi Beta Kappa Society? How does Emerson use this as a call to arms?
  • What is the ''American Scholar'', according to Emerson? What are the key elements of this term? How does the American Scholar achieve the right mind? How does this relate to the ''Man Thinking''? What makes this person a scholar? What makes this person an American Scholar? What's the distinction between those ideas? Why does this matter to Emerson?
  • What are the three influences on the American Scholar? How does nature influence the right mind? Why must the Man Thinking look to nature? What do you think about this?
  • How does the past manifest in books? Why is this significant? How does this impact the American Scholar? Do you think that's still true?
  • How are action and experience crucial to the American scholar? What sort of experience does Emerson explore?
  • How does Emerson organize this speech? How does he balance the elements of his argument? Which part of this was the most effective for you? Do you find his argument and evidence convincing?

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