Thoreau and the Tradition of the Active Mind

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 mind.

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 community.
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 mind.

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 and concept.
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 education.

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 and writing.

Martin Bickman, University of Colorado
from Uncommon Learning: Thoreau on Education


Thoreau Sources

  • 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 Mifflin, 1863.
  • 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 Press, 1981-97.
  • 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, 1971.
  • 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, 1975.
  • 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 number.
  • 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, 1960.
  • 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: Addison-Wesley.
  • 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, 1917.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson in His Journals. Edited by Joel Porte. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
  • ---. 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): 372-76.
  • O'Connor, Dick. "Thoreau in the Town School, 1837." Concord Saunterer 4 (1996): 150-172.
  • Peabody, Elizabeth. Record of a School: Exemplifying the General Principles of Spiritual Culture. Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1835.
  • Pinkston, Joan W. "Thoreau and Current Trends in the Teaching of Writing." English Journal 78 (1989): 50-52.
  • Ryan, Kevin. "Henry David Thoreau: Critic, Theorist, and Practitioner of Education." School Review (1969):54-63.
  • Salomon, Louis B. "The Straight-Cut Ditch: Thoreau on Education. American Quarterly 14 (1962): 19-36.
  • Sanborn, F. B. The Life of Henry David Thoreau. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917.
  • Wilson, Lawrence. "Thoreau on Education." History of Education Quarterly 2 (1962): 19-29.