The Catholic University of America

"A Word for Improvisation"
Phi Eta Sigma Induction Address
Glen Johnson, Ph.D., Associate Dean, Undergraduate Programs - Arts and Sciences, and Professor of Media Studies
The Catholic University of America
Sept. 29, 2006

It's an odd fact that there are no freshmen in the Freshman Honor Society. If you're still a freshman, you haven't made the grade. Speaking to sophomores, though, gives me a good opening: the English language has no words "freshmanic," or "junioric" or "senioric," but it does have "sophomoric," an adjective meaning "intellectually pretentious, overconfident, conceited but superficial." One suggested etymology is that "sophomore" combines the Greek words for "wise" and "foolish."

Wise fools. What's the reason for this diss of second-year college students? Likely, it has to do with your reaching the point in your education where you can be a bit unruly intellectually. Sophomores are the students likely to ask the obvious questions that embarrass us old folks dispensing conventional wisdom. And it's true that a significant proportion of breakthrough accomplishments come from young women and men whose efforts look foolish to people around them.

During my own sophomore year, I didn't solve any of humanity's problems. I did encounter, in a sophomore literature survey, the writings of the American essayist and orator Ralph Waldo Emerson. I didn't know then that I would spend much of the next forty years studying and writing about Emerson.

As a thinker, Emerson specialized in wise foolishness, and some people will tell you that he was sophomoric from start to finish. As it happens, Emerson also delivered the most celebrated of all honorary society speeches, his Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard at the beginning of the academic year in 1837.

Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa address is remembered as America's "intellectual Declaration of Independence," with its call to stop imitating Europeans and develop a genuinely American thought and literature. Less frequently remembered are Emerson's remarks on book-learning and on colleges. Here is a sample: "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, Locke, and Bacon have given. . . . Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm." "The book, the college, . . . the institution, . . . They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But . . . the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead."

You can imagine how that went over with the professors in Emerson's audience. It was thirty years before they invited him back. On the other hand, many "young men" and women were compelled by what they heard-and so, in my way, was I, sitting in a college library reading Emerson's speech 130 years later.

Sophomoric me immediately latched on to an anomaly. Why, exactly, were my professors assigning me to read something that told me not to pay much attention to them? Perhaps I was the first person ever to notice this discrepancy? (Sophomores often think that way.) The discrepancy gaped wider when I learned that Emerson himself spent seven hours every day in his library, with the door firmly closed-which is how he wrote enough to fill forty-five volumes in our libraries. He was one of the all-time bookworms. Foolishly, but also wisely, Emerson didn't quite practice what he preached.

One of the people who heard Emerson's address was 20 year-old Henry David Thoreau. We don't have conclusive evidence that Thoreau was in the audience at Harvard that day, but he certainly knew of Emerson's speech almost immediately. Because he was 20, it would convenient to say that Thoreau was a sophomore; but schedules were different in those days, and that was the year he graduated. Emerson's words had a strong effect on Thoreau. As we know, eventually Thoreau dropped out-more or less-and moved alone to the woods bordering Walden Pond, where he stayed for two years, then left and wrote his own book about the experience, now available in any college library.

Thoreau's sojourn at Walden is famous, but there are some little-known footnotes. The land on which Thoreau built his cabin belonged to Ralph Waldo Emerson-so no worries about trespassing. And Walden is within walking distance of Emerson's house, so Thoreau could, and did, go into town to mooch a dinner. People who knew him generally agreed that Thoreau was foolish, but not foolhardy.

Thoreau's Walden experience strikes me as the epitome of wise foolishness, and in that regard the fact that he left Walden is as significant as the fact that he went there. He said why he went: "I wanted to live life deliberately"-that is, with deliberation, thoughtfully-and he thought it sensible to do that in an environment that was both simplified and in constant contact with nature. Thoreau also said why he left Walden: "Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one."

Some of my peers in the 1960s took Emerson and Thoreau literally, dropped out of college and moved to communes. Bad move. That wasn't what Thoreau was about. Rather, he was seeking to live life improvisationally, and he succeeded as well as anyone ever has.

"Improvision" is in the title of my talk, so you can sense that I'm getting to the point. Thoreau went to Walden-but he also graduated from Harvard. In spite of Emerson's tendency to overstate, Thoreau knew that Walden was not a rejection of his college education, but in some way a fulfillment. What he rejected was the beaten path that most graduates, then and now, see as inevitable, inescapable.

Among the famous lines in the Conclusion of Walden are these: "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." Thoreau actually moved in the opposite direction: he had his classical education as a foundation for his airy experiment at Walden. You can do likewise. As freshmen, you laid down solid foundations: philosophy, literature, mathematics. Now you're sophomores. You can afford to risk some wise foolishness.

As an administrator, I talk a lot about liberal education and I like to remind people that "liberal" comes from "liberty." We have that commitment at Catholic University: we try to offer the truth that makes people free, and also some castles in the air.

Every year I review the transcripts of seniors in the School of Arts & Sciences, and every year I'm struck by how many students, even and sometimes especially students with high grades, have played it safe. They've taken the required courses and done well: beyond that, a potpourri of elementary courses, easy-A courses (we do have some), courses whose primary attraction is what time of day they meet, or simply courses that friends are taking. Not much adventure, not many castles in the air, not enough foolishness!

We are used to talking about the "well rounded student" as if roundedness comes solely from non-academic activities. Those are vital-don't get me wrong-but why can't your academic life be well-rounded as well? Emerson pointed out that the smooth curve of the earth actually includes all sorts of mountains and gullies-unity and variety, taken together, just like wise foolishness.

So let me challenge you wise Phi Eta Sigmas to venture some foolishness in your education. Try something different, new, challenging-maybe a course that seems irrelevant to the beaten path you're headed toward. I could give you examples from my own sophomore year, but unfortunately they would be negative examples, academic adventures I now wish I had taken. Like Emerson, but at a much lower level, I didn't practice then what I preach now. Thoreau practiced what Emerson preached, and Thoreau preached what Thoreau practiced. Emerson and Thoreau are both famous, but Thoreau is more fun.

Congratulations to the new class of Phi Eta Sigma. Have fun.