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Elon students turn to Emerson for inspiration during economic crisis

At the deepest point of the 2009 financial woes, a class of Elon philosophy students turned to 19th century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson to help understand America's response to the economic meltdown. What they found is published in new book titled "The Only Sin is Limitation: Essays on R.W. Emerson's multi-faceted influence on America."

The 31 students in the Spring 2009 American Philosophy course, taught by Yoram Lubling, studied Emerson's inspirational teachings on self-reliance and action and his call for imaginative and original responses to the uniquely American experience. So they decided to apply their studies to produce a tangible product, putting together an editorial board, writing the chapters, raising funds for a consulting scholar and arranging for a publisher for the book.

James Aguilar, a senior philosophy major and the book's principal editor, says the students were captivated by Emerson, who is known as a champion of American communalism, common epistemology, and ragged-individualism, capturing the nation's spirit and defining an original way of seeing and thinking that was much different than the prevailing speculative and “aristocratic” form of philosophy espoused by Europeans.

"Emerson is not a strictly academic philosopher," Aguilar says. "He was a poet, an observer, an orator and a thinker in the truest sense. With his emphasis on self-reliance, he became the father of the original American experience."

Aguilar enrolled in the class after a semester studying in Argentina. He caught up on the financial crisis by reading dire media accounts that cast doubts on the future of American-style capitalism. In discussing the situation with Lubling, the two realized the remarkable similarities to the great depression of 1837 in which nearly half the nation's banks closed or nearly failed.

"Students were captivated by Emerson's optimism," Lubling says. "Emerson should be looked at to find the original American spirit that helped us overcome our past crises. The students wanted to produce a book to call attention to his unique approach to concrete problem-solving. Emerson’s philosophy is a call for action (pragmatism), deeds, creative and imaginative solutions, and political courage.

In the book's Preface, Nick Sharrer, a class member who graduated last May, explained that the book is an expression of Emerson's philosophies because it allows the students to contribute their knowledge to the larger community.

"For nearly all of us, this was the most important thing we had ever done during our formal education," Sharrer wrote. "Our uniquely American optimism and confidence in our own abilities … are reflected in the title of our anthology, a quote from Emerson. 'The only sin is limitation.' Our class did not succumb to this sin."

Aguilar wrote an essay for the book drawing from Emerson's thoughts to produce a harsh critique of the nation's two-party system:

"Whether it is a 'Living Democracy,' a renewed interest in great American thinkers, or simply a refusal to be labeled either a Democrat or Republican, we can all begin to live outside the duopoly that has been presented to us. Two and only two parties naturally create a politics of opposition and antagonism. If we succumb to the proposed red-blue dichotomy, all the two parties have to do is convince us not to vote for the other one. Should they not instead be forced to answer to a range of constituencies, and to argue their own positives rather than their opponent's negatives?"

Other students wrote essays on such topics as "Emerson on Technology and its Influences on American Identity," "Emersonian Influences in Frank Lloyd Wright's Architecture," and "Emerson and Modern Dance."

As part of the class, the students arranged for an ongoing dialogue with Arthur Lothstein, professor of philosophy at Long Island University and a noted scholar on Emerson. In reviewing the book, Lothstein called the range of the essays "breathtaking," covering topics that have never before been explored in literature on Emerson.

"I know of nothing like this project in contemporary American education," Lothstein wrote. "Professor Lubling deserves special mention for his brilliant mentoring of these students, who have made Emerson come alive in such fresh and original ways."

Aguilar says Lubling allowed the class to take full responsibility for the book, even leaving the room at times as the students checked each other's scholarship and worked in teams.

"He left us to our own devices, he trusted us to get it done. So we all agreed – let's make something worthy of putting our names on," Aguilar says.

Lubling, who founded and has led Elon's Emersonian Society since 1994, says the students in the class were among the most brilliant he has ever taught in his 19 years at Elon. "They all converged into this class together," Lubling said. "This became an American quest, a truly intellectual experience."

Lubling says the students had a personal stake in the book's success, a great example of "engaged scholarship."

"We don't often appreciate America's own intellectual roots," Lubling says. "Most students don't even know that America has such an original intellectual tradition, and they wanted to capture their own discovery. They learned that American philosophy grew out of the unique experience of this nation’s creation – it is not an arm-chair but a 'dirty-hands' philosophy."

The book is available on Amazon.com and from the book's publisher at www.authorhouse.com. Anyone interested in discussing the book is invited to attend the next meeting of Elon's Emersonian Society, 5 p.m., March 11, at the philosophy department offices in the Spence Pavilion of Elon's Academic Village.

Members of the class who wrote essays and edited the book included the following:
James Aguilar
Jonathan Bolding
Caeli Corradini
Lauren Finn
Kelly Flannery
Anne Hellweg
Joshua Lurie
Kevin O'Sullivan
Joseph Schmissrauter
Nick Sharrer
Jensen Suther

Other members of the class included:
James Bailey
Jared Balavender
Erin Blackwell
Christopher Briggs
Timothy Galvin
Katie Griffith
Scott Hendrix
Lee Hopcraft
Kristy Keiser
Shawn Kennedy
Alex Lane
Zachary McCarthy
Ashley McClelland
Justin Puleri
Kristen Rhodes
Kristin Seum
Kathy Stewart
Kara Tucker
Jared Van Denend
Derek Winter

James Aguilar '10 (l) and Yoram Lubling, professor of philosophy
Dan Anderson,
2/23/2010 9:44 AM