A Higher Calling

The world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’

-Mary Oliver, Long Life

Writing focused not merely on the self, or the world, but on the self in relation to the world: to define essay writing in these terms is to understand the activity as a response to a higher calling. As Ralph Waldo Emerson described the calling of higher education in his oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, on August 31, 1837, colleges “can only serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.” This “gathering from afar” every ray of “various genius” is behind our democratic aspirations for public education.

All of us who think and write today are responding to a world not unlike the world in which Emerson found himself as he delivered his oration in the midst of the financial Panic of 1837. In “The American Scholar,” Emerson questions the marketplace for it defines (and diminishes) labor as an occupation in merely monetary terms. What is remarkable is that for Emerson, the tenuous economic conditions were an opportunity to think about the values that define personal, civic, and professional commitments. As he had written earlier that spring, “These are occasions a good learner would not miss.” And, as if he were speaking to the fragmented political and social conditions of our time, he observed that “what had been, ever since our memory, solid continent, yawns apart and discloses its composition and genesis. We learn geology the morning after an earthquake, on ghastly diagrams of cloven mountains upheaved plains, and the dry beds of the seas.”

Learning geography the morning after an earthquake. The question for the writer, most especially the writer in the throes of what a former student unforgettably called “the nearly-finished-with-school-and-I-have-no-idea-what-the-future-could-possibly-hold-for-me-now” crisis, is coming to terms with the experience of transition and change. Compounding this sense of crisis is the terrifying and unpredictable opportunities that lie hidden in the disfigurement, dreck, and waste of our social and political discourse.

Who am I? Where am I? What is going on? These are the questions that bring us back to ourselves, and to the world, to “the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning: ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’”

New voices. New and serious responses. Comments on the world in which we live.

featured image: a Salvador Dali illustration from an edition of Michel de Montaigne’s essays