Emerson and Douglass in the Political Science Classroom

Shyam K. Sriram, Georgia Perimeter College

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s Fall 2013 issue.

In the summer of 2011, I had the opportunity to attend a week-­‐long NEH1 seminar on the American Lyceum at Northeastern University in Boston. The seminar focused on the role of oratory in forcing social change in the nineteenth century. I left Boston with a renewed interest in this pivotal time in American history, but also with a profoundly enhanced knowledge of orators like John Goff, Henry David Thoreau and Abby Kelly Foster. However, two particular historical figures stuck out – not necessarily because their views were new to me, but because I realized how applicable their thoughts could be in stimulating lively discussion in oftentimes torpid American government classes. They were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass, and specifically, it was two of their speeches that we read and were also performed for us by period actors – “Self Reliance” and “Self-­‐Made Men,” respectively.

Taken together, both essays – though Emerson’s started out as a sermon and Douglass’ as a speech – allow students to reflect on topics like individual versus community responsibility and the elusiveness of the American Dream; topics which

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

frequently come up in political discourse in this country. After assigning excerpts from both essays,2 I pose a series of questions for which I ask essay-­‐based responses. The questions range from the general – “Do you believe you are self-­‐reliant?” and “Is the American Dream open to everyone?” – to the specific: “How is Emerson’s notion of self-­‐reliance represented in current debates on welfare reform?” or “What would Douglass think of affirmative action?”

Based on my students’ responses, I have identified five major themes that come up in my students’ work based on this assignment. First, this assignment can be simultaneously difficult and also rewarding for non-­‐native English speakers (NNES). While several students struggled with Emerson’s and Douglass’s prose, a curious occurrence arose – these very same students wrote that learning English was their own form of self-­‐reliance! This particular demographic may require extra time and advising so they turn in the best work.

Second, religion and culture were major themes in these essays. While some students suggested that God gave them the ability to be self-­‐reliant, others suggested that their particular cultural traditions, often religious-­‐based, did not permit them to be truly self-­‐made. According to one student, a refugee from Afghanistan, “When one grows up in countries where the parents hold the girls’ futures, one cannot help but feel that neither individualism nor self-­‐reliance exist…I have always felt that my future is being decided for me, neither by God nor by me, but it is my family who decides my future.”

Race is a major theme in the responses, as well. While most students do not believe that Douglass would have supported affirmative action, many wrote that he also would not be happy to see Blacks given so few opportunities. One student, a 17-­‐year old African-­‐American female, said, “Whether it is blatantly obvious or not, a person’s skin color can either help or hurt their chances of being successful. For most minorities, their chances of reaching their own destiny are greatly reduced by the fact that they are of the minority race in our country.”

Race is also tied to another theme that presents itself over and over again in these essays – welfare. For many, the notion of race, particularly as a minority, and being dependent on the government for assistance, go hand in hand. A particularly cogent essay by one student stated: “As a black male I have seen my own family, friends and neighbors become dependent on government assistance, which comes with more policing and intrusion to their homes, families, children and personal privacy. I personally do not believe in a two-­‐party system. While Democrats breastfeed and coddle the disenfranchised, the Republicans break the rod on their backs. Both parties end up killing the average urban family.”

The last recurrent theme in my students’ responses to Emerson and Douglass is the overwhelming feeling that, although America was built by those who believed in individualism, this belief is fading among the younger generation. It was riveting, and also slightly depressing, to read young students’ beliefs about how their own upbringing, as well as that of their peers, was stymieing America’s potential. One student wrote: “Do Americans still believe in self-­‐reliance? I would have to say, no. There are too many individuals in this world who rely on others. It’s sad to say, but most of the young adults in America are not aware of what it takes to be a hard worker and how it furthers you in life to become successful … There are too many spoiled children today, who are used to their parents giving them financial stability, so there’s not even an awareness of what it is to be self-­‐reliant.”

While some academics suggest that Emerson is too esoteric and unwieldy for our students to analyze (Major and Sinche 2010), I politely, but firmly, disagree. Based on my students’ responses to this particular assignment, they “got” Emerson, as well as Douglass, and wrote focused and sharp responses to my questions. As educators, our responsibility does not end when we assign a reading; rather, that is when our responsibility really begins because we must then offer avenues to get their minds racing and to draw out their potential. Anything less is tantamount to giving up.


  1. This project was inspired and funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Workshops on American History and Culture. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
  2. In their original forms, both essays are very long, so I have cut them down to five to six pages each.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. 1872. “Self-­‐Made Men.” Retrieved May 1st, 2013.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1841. “Self Reliance.” Essays: First Series. Retrieved May 1st, 2013.


Major, William and Bryan Sinche. 2010. “Giving Emerson the Boot.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 January. Retrieved May 1st, 2013.


Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.


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