The Web, Student Focus, and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Five Allusions to Emerson in The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Today, we mostly know Ralph Waldo Emerson, the popular nineteenth-century transcendental philosopher, through a handful of quotes that have filtered down through the centuries. Three examples:

  • “To be great is to be misunderstood.” (“Self-Reliance”)
  • “Hitch your wagon to a star.” (“American Civilization” in the April 1862 issue of The Atlantic magazine, which Emerson co-founded, by the way)
  • “In the woods is perpetual youth.” (“Nature”)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Beyond Emerson’s many well-known sayings, however, the larger ideas behind his writings ring few bells in the collective minds of contemporary Americans.

That’s why I was taken by surprise recently to come across multiple allusions to Emerson as I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010). This book, which I discovered while reading Stolen Focus by Johann Hari, investigates “the mental and social transformation created by our new electronic environment,” according to poet Dana Gioia.

Carr’s book, packed with scientific research, historical context, and more literary allusions, finds inspiration and grounding in the renowned thinkers, writers, and poets that constitute our cultural DNA. In fact, Carr repeatedly alludes to several other classic authors often found in American literature curricula. For example, besides Emerson, Carr includes Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, T. S. Eliot, and many others to support his arguments.

Carr’s book analyzes in ten chapters, two “digressions,” a prologue and an epilogue exactly (and inexactly) what is going on with our students’ brains… and ours as well.

Quite simply, our brains are changing to adapt to the way we read and think on screens. We skim, scroll, jump from link to link, digress, and remember little. We no longer engage in meditative thinking or, as Johann Hari calls it, mind wandering. Often ridiculed as mere day-dreaming, mind wandering allows us time and space to process the vast amount of information we take in every day.

Nicholas Carr | Sander Duivestein, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll be writing more about The Shallows in an upcoming post, but in this one I wanted to let you know that if you need some timely text excerpts to incorporate Emerson’s nineteenth-century prose into contemporary discussions, you should check out Carr’s book. Also, if you teach Into the Wild or any Transcendentalism-related text, these Emersonian quotes may tie in nicely.

I can see these excerpts making great fodder for weekly AOW assignments or even discussion-starting “Reading Minutes” a la Kelly Gallagher. I’m always on the lookout for interesting things to read that I feel could appeal to high schoolers if framed and supported well. Here are those five Emerson allusions.

Five Emerson Allusions in The Shallows

  1. “Things are in the saddle | And ride mankind.” (Carr 46) This quote, from Emerson’s “Ode, Inscribed to W. H. Channing,” concisely explains “technology’s role in shaping civilization,” writes Carr, adding, “Technological progress… has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history.” As examples, Carr explains how Karl Marx wrote how windmills birthed the feudal lord and steam mills birthed the capitalist. Emerson quips that our “things,” our technologies indeed determine and control our societies.
  2. “Gladly would I unfold in calm degrees a natural history of the intellect, but what man has yet been able to mark the steps and boundaries of that transparent essence?” (Carr 48) Carr quotes Emerson’s 1841 essay titled “Intellect,” where the philosopher asks a question that supplements Carr’s assertion that mankind understands little about the influence of intellectual technologies on our brains. Carr writes, “There are plenty of fossilized bodies, but there are no fossilized minds.”
  3. “The book made possible the delicately nuanced self-knowledge found in Wordsworth’s Prelude and Emerson’s essays and the equally subtle understanding of social and personal relations found in the novels of Austen, Flaubert, and Henry James.” (Carr 76) With this statement, Carr alludes to Emerson as he ponders the cultural changes brought on by the letterpress. Carr writes, “As the book came to be the primary means of exchanging knowledge and insight, its intellectual ethic became the foundation of our culture.”
  4. “Deep in concentration, he (Nathaniel Hawthorne) was attending to every passing impression, turning himself into what Emerson, the leader of Concord’s Transcendentalist movement, had eight years earlier termed a “transparent eyeball.” (Carr 166) Carr’s anecdote featuring Hawthorne spending a summer morning outdoors in Concord, Mass. grounds a discussion about the “key to intellectual progress.” Carr cites Google and the Industrial Revolution to show how each force’s technologies have moved humans further from the ideals of the transcendentalists, who believed that “true enlightenment comes only through contemplation and introspection.” This allusion appears in Chapter 8, The Church of Google, a critical assessment of Google’s ever-expanding presence in intellectual tech.
  5. “The best rule of reading will be a method from nature, and not a mechanical one.” (Carr 171) In his 1858 essay titled, “Books,” Emerson calls on Time — and not an instant message or a “tweet” — as being the natural force that is the best judge of writing. Emerson’s quote helps Carr assert, “We no longer have the patience to await time’s slow and scrupulous winnowing. Inundated at every moment by information of immediate interest we have little choice but to resort to automated filters, which grant their privilege, instantaneously, to the new and the popular.” Carr explains that Google’s ability to grow and thrive is based on the notion that efficiency is the “ultimate good,” attainable only through information provided so quickly that we don’t take the time ponder, think, evaluate, and ultimately, enjoy.

How did I even encounter The Shallows? Well, I’ve decided to pay some particular attention during 2023 to the problem of student disengagement. I’m reading a selection of books as I attempt to address this phenomenon among students.

I notice this problem among my current college freshmen students and I definitely noticed it during my previous position as an 11-12 high school English teacher. Also, I’m observing an increasing disinterest in reading among students. Some students — on more than one occasion — have been pleased to tell me that they didn’t read and had no desire to.

It is truly disheartening and definitely an enthusiasm killer for me. There’s nothing worse than trying to work with students who outright tell you they don’t find value in your content. I want to find out more about how to address this trend.

Thankfully, Carr’s book makes sense of what I’m experiencing in my classroom.

Yes, The Shallows is twelve years old, but its discussion of how our brains adapt to technologies new and old, including the alphabet, the book, Gutenberg’s press, typewriters, personal computers, Smart phones, the internet, and yes, artificial intelligence (AI), is enlightening. A burgeoning technology in 2010, Carr warns about AI and I plan to convey more about his views of ChatGPT soon. Stay tuned.

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading! Do you struggle with kids being able to focus? Are your students unable to work on one thing at a time? Do they seem unmotivated? I’ve seen this in my own classroom, and I truly need to know what’s happening.

Carr’s The Shallows has much to say, and with Emerson as textual support, provides understanding and insight into the changes we’re seeing in our classrooms today.

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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