You see, the word “want” has a double meaning. As a verb it’s “to desire.” As a noun—particularly in nineteenth century texts—it means “a lack.” So, when Emerson says, “The reliance on property… is the want of self-reliance,” it’s clear he intends to communicate property reduces our self-reliance. He goes on to explain that we depend upon the things we have instead of upon ourselves. Having property, we need not rely on our own skills, talents, and acumen.
You see the problem of mistaking one meaning of “want” for the other. If you think “want” is a way to say “desire” (the noun), you might think Emerson favored property, that the desire for property is a desire for self-reliance.
I offered just this explanation to a class, and they nodded with understanding. They heard me. Their comprehension of the paragraph broadened, and a student explained how it made sense, how this notion fit with all of Emerson’s ideas. A few wrote it down, but a very few. After all, they understood, and the moment would be memorable.
Later I gave the class, in advance, passages that might appear on a quiz. One of those was the passage above. On the quiz I asked, “What does ‘want of self-reliance’ mean?”
Over three-quarters answered “a desire for self-reliance.”
It’s likely my state of mind assigns too much meaning to their error, and it’s an ugly thing to shame students. And I’m ashamed I’m doing it. I like these students, a lot. Yet, no frustration is greater than feeling inaudible. Between papers I’ve formed cynical theories for why they would miss this question. I have 15:
1. Anything significant appears in multiple formats, different media, and in duplicated settings, and I only explained the confusion between “want” and “desire” a couple of times.
2. Why write anything down you think you’ll remember? Why remember anything you can find elsewhere? Is memory of obscure information even important?
3. These days, everything is redundant, or—if it isn’t—anything that isn’t redundant isn’t important.
4. As consumers we choose products we want and need. We know what’s important.
5. Data that takes more than three seconds to load requires patience, and I take so much longer.
6. The more we seek and praise ease and efficiency in learning, the harder real learning seems.
7. Pleasing—even when it’s insincere—is the way to go. Easier to appear than to be.
8. Text and uninterrupted voice are linear, and words travel like boxcars on rails you can’t get off. I love to ride the rails but my tastes are peculiar.
9. Electronic media is bifurcation, every track splitting into two new lines every moment.
10. Until Emerson includes sound, images, movement, and links, his work will seem to come from another dimension where sound, images, movement, or links don’t exist.
11. If you can’t guess what’s inside frogs, you have to dissect one. Explaining Emerson is dissecting a frog. The frog rarely survives.
12. Cursors slide and I want students to bear down. Their pens and pencils barely graze paper and a trillion miles of curlicues knot with themselves. It’s all one Jackson Pollock, lovely but inscrutable.
13. Information passes, a parade barely visible beyond the screens interposing between us and the world.
14. The spotlight I stand in isn’t any more hot or cool than any other illuminated space vying for attention.
15. You don’t have to understand Emerson or like him to fulfill his warning that property–electronic property–might own us.
None of these explanations help at all. I’m not a crowing Jeremiah. Quite the contrary, in my imagination I hear colleagues accuse me of ossification, of denial, of being a Luddite, of not adapting to the material I’m given, of not being resourceful or inventive enough, of teaching material inappropriate to the grade level, of having a bad attitude, of teaching outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant texts, of taking tacks no longer viable, of removing myself from the world instead of immersing myself in it, of not following where the puck is going, of mistaking different for worse, of not being student-centered, of undervaluing new ways of learning, of focusing too narrowly on deficits instead of assets, of falling hopelessly behind.
Over the last week or so I’ve examined and accepted all these personal faults. I feel them… and acutely too. I know how strident I sound, and I’m sorry for it. But I can’t help myself. I also fear the future. As a teacher, it’s my job to pass on skills I’ve learned to value as part of my own self-reliance.
Or do I have that wrong too?
I guess I’m ready for a break.