Ralph Emerson and Self-Cultivation in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Author: Marc Martorana, Fellow at Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms

In “The Coming Humanist Renaissance,” Adrienne LaFrance calls on readers to revisit Emerson’s reaction to the 19th-century technological renaissance as we contemplate the rise of artificial intelligence in our time. Heeding this call, I would like to consider how Emerson’s philosophy can inform our discussion of social emotional learning in response to our contemporary moment.

Since the emergence of ChatGPT, education has been among the most immediately visible domains for witnessing AI’s disruptive potential. While much has been written about curriculum and testing in the age of generative AI, it is equally important to consider the mindsets that we should impart on young people as they navigate the challenges of self-formation and the responsibilities of citizenship in a rapidly changing world. Emerson’s vision of self-cultivation expressed throughout his essays offers us valuable insight for how we might think about social emotional learning in the 21st century.

Inhischapter on education in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari describes education in our time as being defined by the challenge of preparing students for the unprecedented pace and scope of change that they are to face across their lives.While it is true that educators have always been tasked with preparing students for a world of change and uncertainty, the radical upheavals of our time are unprecedented to a large degree. Previous historical eras have featured automation that has reshaped the job market and education system. But this may be the first time in history where we are left to seriously ponder whether there will be any roles left that are better suited for humans than artificial intelligence.

What’s more is that today’s students are already experiencing the power of complex algorithms in shaping much of their social life and sense of self through social media platforms, a fact that may constitute not only an economic crisis but also a crisis of meaning and purpose. What might be the aims of our learning, our professional endeavors, or our creative acts in a world where AI powered machines outperform us in virtually every facet of life? What should young people aim for in a world where the only certainty is constant change and disruption? How might we cultivate a sense of self-knowledge or mindfulness to cope with these challenges?

In his essay “Circles,” we find Emerson grappling with what it means to flourish in a state of flux. Wisdom, or “the truth of one’s soul,” is measured by one’s ability to expand one’s horizons across time, to maintain a spirit of youthful openness, incorporating new experiences and realities. “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth,” he writes, “that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning” (403). Far from some nostalgic yearning for the past, “Circles” is a call to embrace one’s contemporary moment, to seek out continuous self-renewal.

Much of our discourse around artificial intelligence warns that AI marks the end of human agency and creativity, and thus purpose altogether. Many schools have outright banned artificial intelligence, and most have failed to fully address it as a topic with relevance to our social emotional well-being. In “Circles,” Emerson expresses a mindset towards the technological advancements of his time that might be more useful for how we approach the technological advancements of ours. Wisdom, according to his vision, lies in finding the balance between embracing the new while remaining steadfast in one’s commitment to self-cultivation. We ought to assist young people in developing a philosophy for coping with change across their lives, and for identifying the capacity for self-cultivation in the way that Emerson frames it.

In his chapter on meditation in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari warns that the confluence of artificial intelligence and biotechnology may make it harder than ever for students to obtain the sort of self-knowledge that has been the hallmark of so many wisdom traditions, and that is vital for the sort of self-cultivation imagined by Emerson. While Harari may appear to exaggerate when he writes, “And we had better understand our minds before the algorithms make their minds up for us”; we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which our young people are being shaped by forces beyond our understanding. Whether it be the manufacturing of political consent or the fostering of mimetic desires for the sake of advertising, our young people face an increasingly complex technological landscape that shapes virtually every aspect of their lives.

In the context of social emotional learning, it is quite common for schools to teach self-knowledge in the form of mindfulness. Mindfulness is typically framed in the context of awareness of one’s feelings and emotions, and incorporates practices aimed at fostering awareness. In Emerson’s writings, we find a robust vision of self-knowledge- or self-reliance as Emerson calls it,  that might inform our teaching of mindfulness in light of our modern challenges. “Self-Reliance” is a call to cultivate an inner dialogue with oneself and an awareness of the forces that seek to tame our individuality. As we talk to young people about the benefits of mindfulness in relation to their well being, we should also prompt them to consider the ways in which their sense of self is being shaped by their interactions with technology.

It is clear that our efforts at social emotional learning and civic education have never been more interrelated.  We must prepare students to be citizens in a world that is not only increasingly interrelated but also driven by forces beyond our understanding.  To meaningfully participate as citizens in such a world, our students must learn to cultivate awareness, agency, and purpose in relation to the issues of our time. Emerson prompts to consider what it would mean to reframe social emotional learning as self-cultivation or care of the self.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. Edited by Joel Porte. The Library of America, 1983.

Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. McClelland & Stewart, 2018. LaFrance, Adrienne. “The Coming Humanist Renaissance,” The Atlantic. 5 June 2023. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2023/07/generative-ai-human-culture-philosophy/674165/.