Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau and the Tradition of the Active Mind
Martin Bickman, University of Colorado
from Uncommon Learning: Thoreau on Education
Thoreau's relation to education as an institution
has been problematic. He entered the teaching profession early as an undergraduate
and left it a few years later, when he closed the private school he conducted
with his brother. Although, as we shall see there were external reasons
for this action, Thoreau's departure from teaching also resulted from disillusion
with the conventional classroom, a growing sense that it prevented learning
rather than fostering it. Also, placing the focus where it
really should be, increasingly he came to feel that "it is strange that
men are in such haste to get fame as teachers rather than knowledge as
learners" (10 March 1856, Journal). He spent the
rest of his life learning and writing-the two were usually the same for
him-but never lost his concern for teaching, both envisioning better ways
to go about it and launching a powerful critique of the way it was usually
done: "What does education often do! -It makes a straight-cut ditch
of a free, meandering brook" (after 31 October 1850, Journal).
The field of education has repaid Thoreau's
criticism by ignoring him. There is no mention of him in Lawrence Cremin's
monumental three-volume history of American education. Nor is Thoreau
noted or quoted in textbooks used in education courses. This volume
intends to recover Thoreau as a philosopher of learning and as one of our
most penetrating writers on education. It does so not simply to correct
or enlarge the historical record but to introduce a much-needed energizing
and clarifying voice to our current efforts at rethinking schools.
By standing outside the mainstream of educational practice, Thoreau can
help us transcend the false oppositions that have arisen between traditionalists
and progressives, between the advocates of "basics" and those of openness
and creativity-between the curriculum and the child, as Dewey put it.
For Thoreau enacted and envisioned a necessary synthesis, a working dialectic
of thinking and doing, of transmitting old cultural forms and creating
new ones, and of democratic schooling and the pursuit of excellence.
One of the ways Thoreau can help us reconcile
these self-defeating oppositions is that he himself was both a doer and
a thinker, an innovative teacher and a speculative writer.
Although his career as a classroom teacher ended early, he continued to
reflect on the process of education throughout the voluminous writings
that recorded and shaped his own low-key but intensely experienced life.
He embodied-some even say invented-the notion of continuing education or
life-long learning. He was a pioneer in adult education also through
his work as both an organizer and a lecturer in the lyceum movement, and
through the intellectual activism fostered by the transcendentalist movement.
The plea, included here, in the "Reading" chapter of Walden for
"uncommon schools," in which the citizens of a village pool their resources
for common scholarly advancement, is one of the earliest and most eloquent
calls for the state support of cultural activities. But Thoreau was
an advocate for continuing education more fundamentally in the sense that
he knew that no formulation or system is sufficient or permanent, that
to be responsively alive is to be a perpetual learner, always aware of
both the possibilities and the limits of one's current knowledge.
Thoreau remained not only a learner but also a learner of how he learned,
keeping in his journal a series of what we would now call metacognitive
reflections. It is one of the most thorough and detailed records
we have of what Emerson called "life passed through the fire of thought"
(85), of productive alternations between world and mind, experiencing and
conceptualizing, living and writing.
But the fact that Thoreau's educational
philosophy was rooted in his own immediate experience does not mean that
this philosophy was crankily eccentric or narrowly personal. Indeed,
one of the main tasks of this introduction is to show that Thoreau's vision
of education can best be explained and appreciated by viewing it as part
of a larger movement in American intellectual life, what I call "the tradition
of the active mind." The term "tradition," though, is somewhat paradoxical
here, since this confluence of thinking seeks to free itself from the grip
of the past in favor of the immediate act of the mind encountering the
world; the active mind trusts its own workings over any previous formulations,
whether by itself or others.
But however vexed the relationship between
this way of thinking and historical indebtedness, it does have a discernible
genealogy. It has played a vital part in our educational history,
although ignored or suppressed by forces Thoreau constantly battled: unthinking
routine, institutional inertia, and blind authoritarianism. This
antitraditional tradition can be traced from Thoreau's own mentors, Ralph
Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott through William James and John Dewey to
the best recent educator writers such as John Holt, George Dennison, Herbert
Kohl, and Jonathan Kozol. It views the site of schooling as
a place where the tensions that beleaguer our existence-body and soul,
self and society, emotion and intellect-can be reconciled. Its actual
embodiments, such as Alcott's Temple School, Thoreau's Concord Academy,
Dewey's Laboratory School, and Dennison's First Street School, have been
on a small scale and short-lived. Yet these experiments have kept
alive the possibility of schools as genuine democratic and intellectual
communities, living realizations of what Allen Ginsberg has called "the
lost America of love." This introduction will show how Thoreau's work and
this larger but obscured tradition can mutually explain and clarify each
other. It will sketch out first his own teaching career and then
relate that career and his later writings to this lineage of the active
Thoreau began teaching before his own formal
education was complete. As a sophomore at Harvard College, he took
advantage of a recent faculty ruling that allowed students a leave of absence
to teach school for up to thirteen weeks. It is likely that Thoreau
took this opportunity primarily for financial reasons, but he probably
also wanted a break from an educational system he often found diffuse,
rigid, and superficial. He later said that Harvard taught all the
branches of learning but none of the roots (Albee 31), and he noted in
Walden that he had been enrolled in a course in "Navigation" that was so
removed from the concrete realities that he wasn't even aware of having
taken it. So in the fall of 1835 Thoreau applied to teach in
Canton, a town south of Boston, where he was interviewed by the young minister,
Orestes Brownson, who was on the verge of fame as a fiery transcendentalist
with his New Views of Christianity and the Church to be published the next
year. Little is known of this first teaching episode, except that
whatever Thoreau's experience with his seventy students he was not discouraged
from teaching as a future career. And whatever he learned about education,
his development was probably fostered more by his study of German and his
conversations with Brownson, the very model of an intellectual activist
who, like Karl Marx, wanted to change the world, not just understand it.
After graduating from Harvard College in
the summer of 1837, Thoreau, now twenty, began his shortest and most notorious
teaching stint. In that year of financial panic he was fortunate
enough to land a position in his native Concord as the teacher at the Center
School, the main public college preparatory school. This post was
traditionally offered to a recent Harvard graduate, but Thoreau, unlike
many of his predecessors, was not just biding his time en route to becoming
a lawyer or minister. Dick O'Connor, who has most thoroughly studied
Thoreau's brief tenure here, writes that he "had some ideas of his own
about teaching that he was eager to put into practice. He fully intended
to stay in teaching for several years, perhaps-after a year of public school
experience and self-directed study-taking a position in a private academy"
(153-54). But during his first few days, Thoreau was visited by Nehemiah
Ball, one of the three members of the school committee. Ball found
the activity and noise level of the classroom too high and instructed the
young teacher to use corporal punishment more often. Stung by the
criticism, Thoreau applied the ferule (a stick for rapping on the hand
rather than a cowhide strip for flogging, which the school did not have)
to six students, some chosen at random, some punished for minor infractions.
That evening he turned in his resignation.
This act of uncivil obedience, like much
of Thoreau's experience, was not as memorable or original in itself (Bronson
Alcott had preceded him both in criticizing corporal punishment and in
not paying his poll tax) as his later verbal formulation of it; in seeking
a new teaching job, he wrote to Brownson: "I have even been disposed
to regard the cowhide as a nonconductor. Methinks that, unlike the
electric wire, not a single spark of truth is ever transmitted through
its agency to the slumbering intellect it would address" (30 December
1837, Correspondence). But more significant than this negative
critique is his positive vision of schooling in the same letter:
I would make education a pleasant
thing both to the teacher and the scholar. This discipline, which
we allow to be the end of life, should not be one thing in the schoolroom,
and another in the street. We should seek to be fellow students with
the pupil, and should learn of, as well as with him, if we would be most
helpful to him. But I am not blind to the difficulties of the case;
it supposes a degree of freedom which rarely exists. It hath not
entered into the heart of man to conceive the full import of that word-Freedom-not
a paltry Republican freedom, with a posse comitatus at his heels to administer
it in doses as to a sick child-but a freedom proportionate to the dignity
of his nature-a freedom that shall make him feel that he is a man among
men, and responsible only to that Reason of which he is a particle, for
his thoughts and his actions. Instead of any disillusionment with teaching,
Thoreau articulates an inspiriting vision that he was to apply to the rest
of his educational work. It is a remarkable epitome of the values
inherent in the tradition of the active mind mentioned above, having particular
affinities with the thought of its most central figure, John Dewey.
Like Dewey, Thoreau chooses to see education not simply as a means, a preparation
for something else, but as intrinsically valuable. Both men assert
a fundamental continuity between the schoolroom and the street, between
the process of learning and the rest of experience. And both seek
to go beyond the conventional dichotomy of teacher and student, suggesting
that the teacher can learn with and from the student. In other words,
education should not simply transmit an existing culture but creatively
reconstruct it. Most centrally, both Thoreau and Dewey see education
as crucial to democracy and viceversa; for democracy to be a living philosophy,
it cannot occur only on election day but in every act of building a true
Soon after writing this remarkable letter,
Thoreau made for himself the opportunity to embody these ideas in practice.
After almost a year of unsuccessfully pursuing leads for other teaching
positions, he decided to open his own school in June 1838. It began
modestly in the family home with only four students. When Concord
Academy, the private college preparatory school he had attended himself,
looked as if it would fold, he was able to rent the building and take over
the name. By the next winter the school had enrolled enough students
that Henry was able to bring in as a second teacher his older brother,
John, who had been teaching on his own in Roxbury.
Although the brothers retained most features
of conventional schooling, they supplemented these with a number of activities
that moved education beyond the walls of the classrooms. There were
frequent field trips, and not just to fields for nature study. The
students were taken to the offices of a local paper to watch typesetting
and to a gunsmith to watch the regulating of gunsights. In the spring,
each student had a small plot of ploughed land to plant. In the fall
of 1840 Henry brought in surveying instruments to teach his students yet
another kind of field work in organizing a survey of Fairhaven Hill.
Surveying, as Thomas Pynchon was later to illustrate in Mason &
Dixon, is a wonderful synecdoche for the imposition of human orders
on the natural world, a way to explore the relation between mathematical
concept and physical reality. But rather than just listing activities,
we can get a better sense of Thoreau's teaching by following him through
an entire sequence. This account of a river trip was reported by
F. B. Sanborn, one of Thoreau's early biographers, who himself later ran
a progressive school in Concord: Henry Thoreau called attention to a spot
on the river-shore, where he fancied the Indians had made their fires,
and perhaps had a fishing village. . . . "Do you see," said Henry,
"anything here that would be likely to attract Indians to this spot?"
One boy said, "Why, here is the river for their fishing"; another pointed
to the woodland near by, which could give them game. "Well, is there
anything else?" pointing out a small rivulet that must come, he said, from
a spring not far off, which could furnish water cooler than the river in
summer; and a hillside above it that would keep off the north and northwest
wind in winter. Then, moving inland a little farther, and looking
carefully about, he struck his spade several times, without result.
Presently, when the boys began to think their young teacher and guide was
mistaken, his spade struck a stone. Moving forward a foot or two,
he set his spade in again, struck another stone, and began to dig in a
circle. He soon uncovered the red, fire-marked stones of the long-disused
Indian fireplace; thus proving that he had been right in his conjecture.
Having settled the point, he carefully covered up his find and replaced
the turf,--not wishing to have the domestic altar of the aborigines profaned
by mere curiosity. (Sanborn 205-6)
Here Thoreau helps his students read the
natural landscape as carefully and closely as a page of Cicero. They
are asked to not merely appreciate its beauty but to make logical inferences
about its possible relations to the human world, to formulate hypotheses
and test those hypotheses through further activity. His own actions
model an intellectual curiosity about the immediate world we move through,
a willingness to take the risk of being proven wrong, and a respect for
the past and other cultures. He enacts and embodies these qualities,
modeling instead of preaching them.
On April 1, 1841, the brothers closed their
school because of John's failing health from tuberculosis, the disease
from which Henry was eventually to die also. Later, Henry tutored
Emerson's nephew on Staten Island for a few homesick months in 1843.
And informally he was a wonderful teacher to many of the children around
him, as documented in detail by two of them, Edward Emerson in Henry
Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend and Louise May Alcott in Little
Men, where he is fictionalized as Mr. Hyde. But he was never
to be a classroom teacher again. On the positive side he wanted to
devote all his energies to his writing. But on the negative side,
he had a deep, underlying suspicion of the whole activity of formal education.
In his journal he writes: "How vain it is to teach youth, or anybody,
truths! They can only learn them after their own fashion, and when
they get ready" (31 December 1959, Journal).
Thoreau's subsequent involvement with education,
then, was primarily as a writer. He did not write a separate single
work on the subject, but, as appropriate to one who saw education as continuous
with all experience, his insights are found throughout the body of his
work, most richly in Walden and the journal. In collecting these
thoughts on education in one place, this volume reveals the actual power
and convergence of Thoreau's educational vision. While some of these
passages do indeed contradict others--and it has often been noted that
self-contradiction is part of the transcendentalist stance toward immediate
honesty and complexity--we can see both the negative comments about existing
schools and the envisioning of a positive education as two sides of the
same viewpoint. It is a viewpoint that comes into sharper focus against
the matrix of thought already referred to as the tradition of the active
The first figure chronologically in this
tradition is Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May and the three other little
women. In 1834 he opened in Boston with Elizabeth Peabody, the Temple
School, which embodied and anticipated what many educators now believe
about the best ways to teach. Instead of rote memorization and recitation
from textbooks, the children were asked to shape and share their own thoughts
in both journals and class discussions. The education was what we
would now call "holistic," since skills like spelling, grammar, and vocabulary
were integrated into larger lessons on ethical and spiritual matters.
Alcott's conduct of the classroom and the
discussions was sometimes unconsciously manipulative, but he was also much
of the time a good listener and a provocative questioner. Although
was he not as good a writer as a teacher-his writings tend to be vaporously
abstract, ironically violating his own best teaching practices-we are fortunate
in having descriptions and transcripts of the school preserved by Elizabeth
Peabody in Record of a School (1835) and later in Conversations
with the Children on the Gospels (1836-37), which appeared under
Alcott's own name. One sequence in particular shows the strength
of his methods:
Mr. Alcott then recurred to the
blackboard and said he would read the scale. This diagram had been
altered many times during the quarter. It was intended to systematize
the conversations in a degree; and never was presented to the children
as a complete map of the mind. Some have objected to these diagrams,
as if they would be fetters on the minds of the children. But their
constant renewal and changes preclude the possibility of their being regarded
as any thing but what they are. After having read the scale through,
he began at the end asking the meaning of each word, and as they were defined,
he obliterated them, until all were gone. (Record 167)
The scale or diagram, then, is offered not
as a self-contained external truth but as a tool to help the students probe,
order, and articulate their own experiences. The scheme is offered
as hypothetical, provisional, subject to revision. In a final flourish,
Alcott even erases each term after it is revisited to emphasize that it
is not the verbal construct itself that should be abstracted from the lesson,
but that it is the entire process, the crucial interplay between experience
Thoreau owned a copy of Record of a
School while he was teaching in his own school, and he thought enough
of it to send a copy to Isaiah Williams. During this time he came
to know Alcott personally, after the latter moved his family to Concord
when the Temple School closed in a flurry of controversy. Louisa
May and her older sister were enrolled in the Thoreau brothers' academy,
and Henry and Bronson began a long friendship. This educational interaction
came full circle when Alcott, who became Concord's school superintendent
in 1859, planned to have Thoreau create a textbook based on the local geography
and natural history of Concord, to be supplemented by his own guided field
trips. In his report for 1861, Alcott writes: "Happily we have
a sort of resident Surveyor-General of the town's farms, farmers, animals,
and everything else it contains,--who makes more of it than most persons
with a continent at their call. Will he just set his ten senses at
work upon an illustrated Atlas for the citizens, giving such account of
the world they inhabit, with such hints concerning the one he lives in,
as he pleases?" (Essays on Education 174). This project
was finally thwarted by Thoreau's last illness and death, but it underscored
what the two shared: a deep respect for the local and the concrete as the
basis of all learning, a hope that education can bring us to our senses
in all senses of this word, and a vision of schooling where knowledge is
as much constructed as transmitted.
If Alcott was more a teacher than a writer
or theorist, his qualities were complemented by another of Thoreau's friends,
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson's "American Scholar" address, delivered
to Thoreau's Harvard College class of 1837, is the earliest major manifesto
in the tradition of the active mind. We cannot be sure Thoreau himself
was in attendance, but as an undergraduate he had already read Emerson's
first book, Nature (1836), and upon his return to Concord at this time
Emerson became a powerful mentor for him. In education, as in other
areas, the older man frequently saw Thoreau as embodying and living out
his own ideas. Emerson notes in his journal, for example, the boat
trip that John and Henry took on one of their vacations from teaching:
"Now here are my wise young neighbors who instead of getting like the wordmen
into a railroad-car where they have not even the activity of holding the
reins, have got into a boat which they have built with their own hands,
with sails which they have contrived to serve as a tent, & gone up
the river Merrimack to live by their wits on the fish of the stream &
the berries of the wood. My worthy neighbor Dr. Bartlett expressed
a true parental instinct when he desired to send his boy with them to learn
something" (Emerson in His Journals 223-24).
"The American Scholar" is sometimes taken
primarily as a call for American literary independence, but this theme,
already a tired American topos, is trumpeted only at the beginning and
the end. More centrally the address is a radical rethinking of the
relations between education and culture. Before philosophical pragmatism
and cognitive psychology, Emerson saw learning not as the discovery of
preexisting truth but as the process of making, of making knowledge in
a constant transaction between the self and the world: "The scholar
of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave
it the arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came
to him life; it went out from him truth" (Essays 56). What is crucial
here is the entire process, not just the end product such as a book or
a fixed idea which can become deadeningly tyrannical if we dwell too long
with it and not constantly immerse ourselves in the cycle: "Each
age, it is found, must write its own books. . . . The books of an
older period will not fit this. Yet hence arises a grave mischief.
The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation,--the act of thought,--is
transferred to the record. The poet chanting was felt to be a divine
man; henceforward it is settled, the book is perfect; as love of the hero
corrupts into worship of his statue" (Essays 56-57).
In this last image, the living hero is
frozen into hardness and coldness while the reciprocal emotion of love
turns into the one-way abasement of worship. Thoreau was to use more
natural, homely metaphors to describe this process of intellectual rigor
mortis: "It appears to me that at a very early age-the mind of man-perhaps
at the same time with his body, ceases to be elastic. His intellectual
power becomes something defined--& limited. He does not think
as expansively as he would stretch himself in his growing days-- What was
flexible sap hardens into heartwood" (2 April 1852, Journal).
And elsewhere he writes of those who go to Europe to "finish their education,"
pun intended: "Instead of acquiring nutritious and palatable qualities
to their pulp, it is all absorbed into a prematurely hardened shell.
They went away squashes, and they return gourds" (30 July 1853, Journal).
The worst effect of conventional schooling
is to perpetuate and exacerbate this situation. As Emerson writes:
"The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind,
stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they,--let
us hold by this" (Essays 57-58). Thoreau uses a cluster of
images for this process focusing on well-worn paths and ruts. In
one journal entry he writes: "Every thought that passes through the mind
helps to wear & tear it & to deepen the ruts which as in the streets
of Pompeii evince how much it has been used" (7 July 1851,
Journal). Most poignantly, this figurative rut becomes literal
as well in the path that Thoreau himself wears between his hut and Walden
Pond: "I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from
my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod
it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear that others may
have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of
the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths
which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways
of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!" (Walden
323). Even when the cultural artifact, then, is of one's own making,
even when it is as supple and magnificent as a book like Walden, we must
keep going beyond it. As Emerson writes: "Every thought is also a
prison; every heaven is also a prison" (Essays 463).
Emerson and Thoreau, then, as well as the
other writers in this tradition, envision an education that does not simply
pass on the end-results of past cultural creations but one that immerses
each student in the entire cycle of experiencing, formulating, and then
reinstates these formulations back into experience to test, hone, and modify.
As Emerson puts it, "Only so much do I know, as I have lived. . . So much
only of life as I know by experience, so much of the wilderness have I
vanquished and planted" (Essays 60). And just as crucial as
the construction or reconstruction of cultural forms is the continual destruction
and transcendence of the confining and limiting old forms, even when--or
especially when---they are of our own making. Few writers have been
as eloquent as Thoreau about the necessity for this renewal of ignorance
in education, as in this sentence, whose very grammatical construction
emphasizes not knowing: "I do not know that knowledge amounts to
anything more definite than a novel & grand surprise on a sudden revelation
of the insufficiency of all that we had called knowledge before."
And in Walden he writes: "Every man has to learn the points
of the compass again as often as he wakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction"
(171). Indeed, the entire project of moving out to--and then leaving--Walden
Pond, of writing Walden but reminding us at the end that "The sun
is but a morning star" (333), can be seen as attempt to "keep the New World
new" (15 October 1859, Journal). In tramping this perpetual
journey, Thoreau embodies a vision of education that is never ending, never
completed, always vibrantly alive to the immediate circumstances of life.
Indeed, if we keep in mind this sense of
education as a process, a never-ending cycle or spiral, we can see the
underlying coherence of Thoreau's statements behind the apparent contradictions--his
scorn of pedantry and his love of classics, his injunctions to live in
the now and his concern for history, his allegiance to nature and his commitment
to human culture. Just as Emerson sees learning as an undulating,
rhythmic motion--"the mind now thinks, now acts" (Essays 62)-Thoreau
writes equally rhythmically, "We have our times of action and our times
of reflection," either of which alone soon becomes meaningless or sterile.
Thoreau can praise the activity of reading extravagantly, as he does in
th sections included here from "Reading," and then begin the next chapter,
"But while we are confined to books . . . we are in danger of forgetting
the language which all things and events speak without metaphor" (111).
Even within a single sentence Thoreau expresses the paradoxical interactions
between knowing and unknowing, learning and unlearning: "At the same
time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that
all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely
wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable." Any
learning, any cultural construction, can be only what Robert Frost called
"a momentary stay against confusion."
While Thoreau sees this cycle as at the
heart of the entire educational process, it is particularly in the area
of writing, of language-making, that he writes with the greatest depth
and specificity. This is the learning activity he himself engaged in daily,
noting: "How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up
to live!" (19 August 1851, Journal). Emerson, who first encouraged
Thoreau to keep a journal, had noted in Nature (1836) a kind of
linguistic entropy that results when language loses touch with the physicality
from which it arose, becoming fossilized through habit and increasing abstraction.
To counteract this force, the true American scholar must "pierce this rotten
diction and fasten words again to visible things" (Essays 23).
Or as Thoreau puts it, playing on the etymology of the word parlor as relating
to speech: "It would seem as if the very language of our parlors
would lose all its nerve and degenerate into palaver wholly, our lives
pass at such remoteness from its symbols, and its metaphors and tropes
are necessarily so far fetched, through slides and dumb-waiters, as it
were; in other words, the parlor is so far from the kitchen and workshop"
(Walden, 245). The writer who uses only the existing language
is a secondary or derivative one, not a "maker" but an imitator; the true
writer-and learner-must move beyond the prison-house of language to construct
new forms more responsive to the immediate, helping us see what previous
forms left out. As Thoreau writes, he illustrates his point by using
such concrete sensory metaphors: "He would be a poet who could impress
the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words
to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring,
which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them,--transplanted
them to his page with earth adhering to their roots," (Natural History
Essays 120). The writer reembodies language not only by heeding
outside nature but by writing from his entire physical existence, from
"thoughts which the body thought" (9 November 1851, Journal):
"We reason from our hands to our head" (5 September 1851, Journal).
Elsewhere, he writes: "The forcible writer stands bodily behind his
words with his experience-- He does not make books out of books, but he
has been there in person" (3 February 1852, Journal), anticipating
the words of one of Zora Neal Hurston's characters: "You got tuh
go there tuh know there." So when Thoreau retreats to Walden
Pond or takes one of his shorter excursions to wilder places like the Maine
woods, it is not to commune mutely with "nature" but to explore and exploit
sources for new language, which is also new knowledge. He hoes beans,
he tells us, not for food or trade but "for the sake of tropes and expressions,
to serve a parable-maker one day" (Walden). Some progressive
educators make the mistake of thinking it is enough for students to have
experiences, but experiences themselves are educative only if the students
actively clarify, internalize, and reflect on these experiences through
their own language-making. The corresponding mistake of educational
conservatives is to assume that inert bits and pieces of culture committed
to memory somehow constitute thinking. It is one of the many ironies
of our current schooling that Thoreau's writings themselves have become
fodder for mindless exam questions instead of the "perpetual suggestions
and provocations" (Walden 100) he sought from his own reading; we
should not so much venerate and memorialize Thoreau's writing as use it
to spur our own: "Thought breeds thought. It grows under your hands"
(13 February 1860, Journal).
And indeed it is the energy, the provocativeness,
of Thoreau's writings on education that is his crucial legacy to us as
learners, parents, and teachers. If Thoreau was not as original in
his teaching practice as Alcott nor in his reconceptualizing of education
as Emerson, he often created a richer, more relevant, and supple language
in which to talk about learning and teaching. His embrace of the
concrete, his breaking down of dead, abstract language through etymologies
and puns, his playful, often apothegmatical wit-such as his critique of
external reward: "Let every sheep keep but his own skin" (Correspondence
190)-are the essence both in idea and embodiment of the tradition of
the active mind: "The volatile truth of our words should continually betray
the inadequacy of the residual statement. Their truth is instantly
translated; its literal monument alone remains" (Walden 310).
How, then, should we read this book?
On the one hand, we cannot take these excerpts as literal prescriptions
even if we could get beyond their apparent contradictoriness. As
Thoreau says: "I would not have any one adopt my mode of living
on any account; for beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have
found out another for myself. I desire that there may be as many
different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be
very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or
his mother's or his neighbor's instead" (Walden 71). But on
the other hand, we cannot merely let this be a reading and thinking experience
locked away within the mind only. Thoreau said of what he considered
a truly good book: "I must lay it down and commence living on its
hint. . . . What I began by reading I must finish by acting" (19 February
1841, Journal). This present book exists only to be realized
in radically rethinking and restructuring our schools. If the ideas
and stances here seem visionary, seem like castles in the air, to use one
of Thoreau's metaphors, we must put the foundations of reflective action
and community building under them. The schooling of our children
is too crucial and too exciting to be left to large bureaucracies, profess-ors
of education, or top-down quick fixes. As George Dennison has written,
"To be open to experience means, too, that we cannot repeat past successes
with past techniques. We cannot organize the educational event in
advance. Certainly we can plan and prepare, but we cannot organize
it until we are in it and the students themselves have brought their unique
contributions. And so there is a point beyond which our tendency
to organize becomes inimical to experience, inimical to teaching" (258).
Nothing can substitute for the steady, constant application of intelligence
and love. As Thoreau says, "No method nor discipline can supersede
the necessity of being forever on the alert" (Walden 111). To avoid
overorganizing Thoreau's own thinking, the selections here follow neither
chronology or a strictly topical and segmented structure. Thoreau's faithfulness
in following the twists and turns of the immediate thought often leads
him into statements that contradict each other within the total body of
his work, but, as outlined here, there is an underlying coherence beneath
the shifts and inconsistencies. The structuring of this volume is
loose, more suggestive and associative than strictly logical, more recursive
and spiraling than linearly sequential. It invites the reader to
make her or his own kinds of orders and relations among the passages, to
actively connect the dots in a personal reconceptualizing of learning and
This book, then, begins with a series of
passages emphasizing the need to awaken ourselves from abstractions and
preconceptions in order to see and learn anew. This strategy is not
only a helpful for learning in general but for following here Thoreau's
iconoclastic mind working on the subject of education. Then follows
a plea for "uncommon schools," where thinking and doing, theory and practice
are reunited. Subsequent passages focus more specifically on the
nature and contents of reading, which Thoreau views not as a prescribed
exercise in cultural literacy but as a series of goads provoking further
thinking (Walden 100). The study of books, of course, has
to be supplemented, qualified, and contradicted by the direct experience
of a life in nature, the focus of the next sequence of passages.
And this experience of nature must in turn be transformed and reconstructed
into a new culture, the task of the arts and sciences, so the next passages
are more specifically concerned with learning various subjects such as
science and history. This volume ends with meditations on the subject
in which Thoreau shone the brightest, the learning and teaching of language
The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau.
Edited Walter Harding and Carl Bode. New York: New York University Press,
1958. Reprint Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1974.
Early Essays and Miscellanies.
Edited by Joseph J. Moldenhauer and Edwin Moser, with Alex C. Kern.
Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1975.
Excursions. Boston: Houghton
The Journal of Henry David Thoreau:
Volumes I-XIV. Edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen:
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906.
Journal: Volumes 1-5. General
Editor Robert Sattelmeyer. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University
The Natural History Essays.
Edited by Robert Sattelmeyer. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1980.
Reform Papers. Edited by Wendell
Glick. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Walden. Edited by Lyndon D.
Shanley. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack
Rivers. Edited by Carl F. Hovde, William Howarth, and Elizabeth
Hall Witherell. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
Note: Thoreau's journal exists in two editions.
The more recent and accurate Princeton edition, though, is in progress
and is now complete only to March 1853. Where possible, this edition
is used, indicated by an arabic numeral for the volume number; elsewhere
the Houghton Mifflin edition is used, indicated by a roman numeral volume
Other Works Cited and Secondary Sources
Adams, Raymond. "Thoreau: Pioneer
in Adult Education." Institute Magazine 3 (1930): 6-7.
Albee, John. Remembrances of
Emerson. New York: R. G. Cooke, 1901.
Alcott, Amos Bronson. Conversations
with Children on the Gospels. Boston: James
Munroe and Company, 1836-37.
---. Essays on Education.
Edited by Walter Harding. Gainesville, Florida: Scholars' Facsimiles,
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Men:
Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1871.
George Dennison. The Lives of
Children: The Story of the First Street School. Reading, Massachusetts:
Dewey, John. "John Dewey on Thoreau."
Thoreau Society Bulletin (1950): 1.
Emerson, Edward Waldo. Henry
Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson
in His Journals. Edited by Joel Porte. Cambridge: Harvard University
---. Essays and Lectures.
Edited by Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983.
Harding, Walter. "Henry D. Thoreau,
Instructor." Educational Forum 24 (1964): 89-97.
Hughes, Mildred P. "Thoreau as Writer
and Teacher of Writing." English Journal 67 (1978): 33-35.
Hurd, Harry Elmore. "Henry David
Thoreau--A Pioneer in the Field of Education." Education 49 (1929):
O'Connor, Dick. "Thoreau in the
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