Notes on The Transcendentalists and Education

A. Bronson Alcott was an American philosophical writer and educator, and one of the founders of the transcendental school of philosophy. In his private school in Boston he taught by adapting the instruction to the individuality of each student. He used the method of leading his students to conclusions through the series of questions and answers, just like Socrates did. A. B. Alcott tried not to influence his students' answers, but expected their sincere, well-thought replies. Indeed, reader of the records from his classes can be often impressed with the unblurred logic of child's thought.
Elizabeth Peabody did record his conversation with children. Likewise, Margaret Fuller was helping at his school. But Fuller was also concerned with an adult education, namely with the education of women. Upon her initiative, women were meeting together and discussing their readings in "Conversations." It seems to me that she originated so-called "reading clubs" so popular today among middle class women. The books read by women now and then often are not the best ones, but those clubs help women overcome their solitude and feeling of "staying behind" if not even worst feeling of intellectual inferiority. Thoreau also believed in adult education, but he also believed on self-reliance in this matter.

On Emerson's "The American Scholar"

Emerson delivered "The American Scholar " on August 31,1837 in Cambridge, the day after Harvard's commencement. He talked to the honor students of Phi Beta Kappa. He made it explicit that he was purposely talking about the American scholar, while the usual and unrelated topics at similar occasions would involve ancient Greece, or medieval or contemporary Europe.

The scholar of Emerson's speech takes an abstract shape of Platonic Forms; Emerson intends him to become the pattern to be followed. Emerson encourages young scholars to stand firmly on the American ground and seek their enrichment from it.

Since, according to Emerson, society and consequently scholars have declined, he presents a solution for the reparation of that society through the education of scholars on their responsibilities, and by presenting desirable ways for good education of scholars. That should start from knowing nature, ergo Socratic "know thyself"--here again Emerson puts an equation mark between man and nature.

"The theory of books is noble" states Emerson and then develops his opinion about books from very affirmative (books valuable as source of learning history) to less enthusiastic (books contain just a fraction of the truth and only temporal circumstances are expressed in them). Emerson develops further his negative opinion about books when he adds that scholar's mind can cling to the thoughts of others, which results in lack of the original thinking among American scholars.

Emerson uses the example of scholars who are not able to grasp the main picture (of ideas) because they become entangled in particulars. The sad result, as he stresses again, is their lack of creativity. The other obstacle preventing scholars from becoming creative and from coming close to God is their dependence on books of others, Shakespeare among them. That dependence should be used sparingly and as the last resort, to stimulate creativity.

Thoreau on Education

Thoreau is such a writer that the more one reads of his writings, the more one realizes that one should not rush through his writings but sip and taste them like a good cognac (he would dismiss cognac, one can safely say). But while tasting cognac is a vain pleasure, "tasting" Thoreau is educational. He writes: "The written word is the choicest of relicts." Indeed, some paintings, like those of Van Gogh, can point toward spiritual life, but the viewer still may get lost; the written word is easier (but not easy) to follow.

Before one would follow Thoreau's thoughts about the written word, it is good to "bite in" in the beginning of "Sounds" in Walden:

Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed. No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry—compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?—Read your fate, see what is before you and walk on into futurity—I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better then this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin [I underlined this because although the value of that "broad margin in education seems to be obvious, I have almost never seen it be put to work. Would that have anything to do with fear?] to my life. Sometimes in a summer morning—I sat in my sunny doorway—in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sung around"

Here Thoreau stresses the extremely important educational issue of developing the spiritual side and sensitivity in students and preserving it in teacher. Listening to the relevant words of American Indians can help to understand Thoreau's thought better:

  1. Chief Luther Standing Bear: "The man who sat on the ground in his tipi meditating on life and its meaning, accepting the kinship of all creatures and acknowledging unity with the universe of things was infusing into his being the true essence of civilization. And when native man left off this form of development, his humanization was retarded in growth."
  2. Sun chief (Hopi in Oraibi, Arizona): "I had learned many English words and could recite part of the Ten Commandments. I knew how to sleep on a bed, pray to Jesus,comb my hair, eat with a knife and fork, and use a toilet—I had also learned that a person thinks with his head instead his heart."
  3. Smohalla (Nez Perce Indians,Columbia River in Eastern Washington):"My young man shall never work. Men who work cannot dream; and wisdom comes to us in dreams."

Thoreau devotes "Reading" to the value of reading, and especially of reading of good literature mainly classics: "For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?"-he says. Then he steps down and gives a very practical advice for teachers "I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives". Indeed, children can learn very well that way, and accept strange worlds, like that of the ancient Greece or Rome, naturally and with a genuine interest.

There is a passage in this chapter where Thoreau refers to intellectual laziness: "Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and, perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading." Thoreau makes an important point here, that the continuous education is crucial in everyone's life: "It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women." The problem here is not that of Protestants and their Bible only, but of all the people, also those who today make quite an effort during their university years and then "slide down" to reading of Stephen King and Danielle Steel novels for the rest of their lives.

Thoreau sees the possibility of improvement of the situation in taking the education in learners' own hands (an important aspect of the self-reliance):"In this country, the village should in some respect take the place of the nobleman of Europe. It should be the patron of the fine arts. It is rich enough. New England can hire all the wise man in the world to come and teach her—let us have noble villages of men�.If it is necessary, omit the bridge over the river, go round a little here, and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us." These words are striking in their practicality and reason, yet it is so difficult to convince the others about those simple truths. As much as one agrees with Thoreau, one can not stop thinking that perhaps ( how sad) to be able to plant those truths in reality, one needs Machiavellian skills and abilities.

In his 1851 Journal Thoreau wrote: "All these leaves so still, none whispering, no birds in motion,-how can I be else than still and thoughtful." Is that not an important lesson, that of perception, sensitivity, being in-tune with a teacher or teaching situation? Similarly, at the end of July 23, 1851 entry, Thoreau wrote:"But this habit of close observation,--in Humbolt, Darwin,and others. Is it to be kept up long, this science? Do not tread on the heels of your experience. Be impressed without making a minute of it. Poetry puts an interval between the impression and the expression,--waits till the seed germinates naturally."

In the canvas of these words there is more than one thread of thought to be followed. The one I like a lot is about an interval and poetry. One can learn from it how to teach and how to learn, how to sow the seeds of knowledge and how to be patient. If enough time is allowed those seeds of knowledge will grow into poetry, no matter how expressed.

A teacher can learn from Thoreau that it is the teachers' role to instill in students "that habit of close observation" instead of the habit of collecting facts just for sake of them. And here follows the most important guideline for teachers and for students alike: "The question is not what to look at, but what you see".

A digression here: as I read Thoreau I can not help the impression that he invented what was called later "stream of conscious" writing (and what Virginia Woolf brought to perfection). For example, he writes in his journal about a student and a wilderness, then he switches to "Why does not man sleep all day as well as all night, it seems so very natural and easy? For what is he awake? "(that is a good philosophical question). Then he proceeds to "the yellow pine." That is the way human mind works. And that is educational too.

In July 21, 1851 Thoreau points toward the most important issue which the masters of Zen Buddhism consider a kernel of their philosophy and their teaching:"There is no glory so bright but the veil of business can hide it effectually. With most men life is postponed to some trivial business, and so therefore is heaven. Men think foolishly they may abuse and misspend life as they please and when they get to heaven turn over a new leaf" (51). Ah, this is also the topic of Tao, of Existentialism, of every human who stops and thinks.

Thoreau was a very good educator. Only, I am afraid (for it often happens) that the journey with him will educate those already educated, while the John Fields are the ones in desperate need to learn.

Krystyna Grocholski, Virginia Commonwealth University
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