Saturday, October 20, 2012

Three Looks at Re-Thinking a Popular Leadership Quote by Emerson

"Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

It was a dank and chilly Thursday morning. Five of my 25 students arrived to class on time. (I am planning a class day themed around punctuality.) I didn't spend much time planning for that day anyways.

Instead of talking about the differences between "affect" and "effect," I wrote the Emerson quote on the board and gave everyone an opportunity to respond in their Day Book. A few more students trickled in while we wrote.

I had no agenda at first. I planned to have them share what they wrote with others, honing their revision and editing skills. But as I thought about the quote more, I decided to try an exercise in critical thinking and analysis. If it flopped, at least I only had a few students criticizing me that day.


After hearing some initial thoughts, I asked my class what they think of when they imagine a path. We conjured up images of walking or hiking in the woods. When hiking, you are not supposed to stray from the trail for three reasons: (1) you might get lost, (2) you might get hurt, and (3) you are potentially harming the unadulterated nature you want to see while hiking. An ecological view of Emerson's quote changes the warm and fuzzy feelings it may initially conjure.

Paths are paths for a reason. They are proven to be safe. They get the traveler to the desired destination. They prevent aimless, time-consuming wandering. In the 19th century when Emerson lived, a path might help lead you to town or to a doctor when you didn't have time to get lost or run into a marsh. If you have a destination in mind, you should follow a path. If you want to be a doctor, you best go to medical school instead of making your own path. The only trail you leave will be one of lawsuits and sick people.

Beyond getting where you want to go, environmentalists preach low-impact hiking. The Matador Network suggests you follow the path or paths before you: "Especially when mud puddles or photographs are involved, it's sometimes tempting to wander off the trail. The long term effect is to create new paths that carve up formerly pristine areas. Not only does this look ugly, but it can hurt fragile plants and, over time, denude landscapes. Better to get your shoes a little dirty or sacrifice the perfect photo" ("5 Essential Rules for Low-Impact Hiking").

As the Matador Network notes, one of the points of hiking is the hike itself. So it is with life, too. We take paths to our goals and dreams not only to reach the destination, but so we can grow from the experience on the journey. Straying from the path not only ruins the experience for you, but for those behind you. The many shortcuts towards weight loss have resulted in tons of diets that neither last nor leave people healthy, but people still see the new trail and follow it. The beauty of discipline, changing one's diet, and exercising for health are hard to see through the vanity of weight loss and body images. Straying from the path denudes the landscape and the devalues the journey.

Approaching with New Historicism

Of course, sometimes straying from the path is good. If we only followed in the footsteps of others, we would never see progress. Indeed, we need to stray from the paths of the past in order to establish equality in the land.

Emerson is one of the founders and leaders of transcendentalism, a particularly US American philosophy that believed in the self-reliant individual. This emphasis on the individual helped us see injustice, because humans began not only to value themselves, but also other individuals in and for themselves. The value of the minority grew when each individual is as important as the whole. Emerson and others blazed this paradigm shift in Western thought from top down to bottom up.

Of course, Emerson's path may not have been the only one or the best one. We cannot know, because we live in a world where Emerson took the path he did. By telling people to make their own trails, he is asking them to do what he did, to do like he did. Paradoxically, he is telling them to go where there is no path, which is following the path he created. Essentially, he suggests to follow him by following no one.

Post-structuralist Critical Theory

Like good postmoderns and like people who simply want to hold onto something they enjoy, my students pressed my qualms with Emerson.

One student told me she found the quote inspiring. It encouraged her to be herself and not follow the trends society expected of her. A few students spoke about how they wanted to leave a path for a younger sibling to follow. One was even leaving a trail for an older sibling who returned to college when she enrolled.

At this point, my students confounded my agenda to unpack Emerson's metaphor in a way that makes one a little more uneasy about his advice. I wasn't ready to give up, though, because I reflected on my students. They are at a community college in Alabama, all of them required to take 093 Basic English--a class earning them no credits, but one they must pass in order to enter the core curriculum in English--and the majority of them are people of color. Although I cannot know them by these classifiers alone, they have different advantages and disadvantages than I do and than I had at their age.

I grew up in the northeast, and only qualified for one Federal Pell Grant during my time as an undergraduate student. My parents could even afford to send me to study abroad in Europe for a semester. Instead of taking a prereq class, I was in my college's honors program and I earned merit-based scholarships. Furthermore, I am white. I am white when people see me, I am white when people hear me, and I am white when people read what I write. People will always assume I am white, even when they don't see my skin.

I asked my class, "How much do you think privilege and your personal experiences impact how you read this quote?"

Their faces reflected their attempts to understand my question, so I began to explain privilege. I was thinking about the difference in the paths before Emerson, the paths before me, and the paths before my students. When any of my students, regardless of race, talk about leaving a trail for their siblings, I was wondering what the other options were for their siblings. Drugs? Homelessness? Foreclosure? Increased poverty in a world of increased cost of living? Dead end jobs? Gang association? Disease? Family life with a low, mediocre, or high paying job?

Following and Leading

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9

The writer of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) might retract that statement after seeing a cellphone, but Qoheleth is right to assert that we are always following paths set before us, in a sense. Emerson had to follow many philosophical, religious, and economic traditions--paths--in order to come to his ideas of transcendentalism. President Obama might tell Emerson, "You didn't build that," and he would be right. Still, Emerson did found new ground and set a new trail much in the same way technology advances and groundbreaking legislation do.

Like technology and legislation, the trails we leave are not always for the best. Have US Americans emphasized individuality too much? Although the emphasis on the individual helped us recognize the Other, it sometimes helps us ignore the Other so that we can achieve pleasure, like when our clothes and technological devices are made through slave labor. 

One might say we shouldn't follow a path until we have enough time to evaluate the consequences. But we never know where a path truly leads. Robert Frost rightly describes the roads before us in The Road Not Taken. We can see down them only so far (ll. 4-5)--maybe this path leads to being a CEO, a president, or a parent. Then again, so do a multitude of other paths, some not even made yet. Which is best? There is no way to know, because you can only travel one (ll. 11-15). Later we may look back--"Somewhere ages and ages hence" (l. 17) and impose significance and value to the choices we made, the roads we followed, the trails we blazed, but that imposition will be an imposition, not objective truth, which is why Frost describes his imposition in line 20 as being told "with a sigh" (l. 16).

We are left with multiple paths and roads before us. In between, there is some elbow room to blaze our own trails in the sense that we are creating novelty, but not something completely new. Perhaps it isn't a trail we blaze, but rather a unique combination of routes (cf. Frost, l. 14).

Following Emerson's dictum may be good advice, but not for everyone in every situation. For some of us, the paths before us leave a trail that those behind us cannot help but follow, despite how harmful they are (fast food, fundamentalism, hate). Leadership for the sake of leading is not good like Emerson's quote seems to imply. Emerson's quote without context says simply to lead and always lead, not to lead to good results. More important than blazing trails are getting to good destinations and helping others along their journey.

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