Transcendentalism Today: Echoes of Walden, online and in the classroom

Our students are transcendentalists, but they don’t know it.

Speaking metaphorically, Thoreau writes “I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.”  Rather than treating children as wild creatures that needed to be tamed and civilized, Thoreau seesorder and meaning in nature, which is threatened, worn down, and buried by civilization.

At a time when being educated at Harvard meant reciting verbatim from establishment experts, Bronson Alcott in his Temple School taught through dialogue with his young pupils, asking them to express themselves by answering gently (but relentlessly) probing questions that nurtured their creative capacity, without shutting it down by training them to settle for answers. (Isn’t that what we do in our seminars? Isn’t that what part of the allure of being part of a small college, where you’ll never be taught by a graduate student?)

I captured an example of Socratic dialogue a few weeks ago, when my 7-year-old daughter suddenly brought up free will and animism during an afternoon of birdhouse-building.  I didn’t tell her what to think, I asked questions that encouraged her to think things through for herself.  (When she was six, she would sometimes stamp her foot and scream, “You can’t punish me!  I haven’t yet reached the age of reason!”)

The last time I taught Thoreau’s Walden, I noticed just how much time I was wasting matching my socks, so I bought a set of 12 identical black socks and a set of 12 identical white socks.  Presto change-o, I spend a lot less time sorting socks.

I’m curious to find out what my students have to say about this book, since it’s not a novel, or a biography. It’s more than a collection of hastily composed, inter-connected and competing thoughts, but there’s a level of spontaneity and emotional serendipity that might seem familiar to them.

This time around, I couldn’t help but think of Mitch Maddox, who during the calendar year 2000 changed his name to DotComGuy, and retreated to a wired and webcammed home, where he lived the simple life cyberstyle, dispensing with all this tedious travel and engagement with the outdoors, and instead aiming to live by selling advertising space on his website, and ordering all that he needed online.  (Walter Kirn of Time wrote, “Like a switched-on Thoreau at a virtual Walden Pond, he devised the stunt to teach mankind that the age of e-commerce is here–and that it is good.”  But the dot-com crash happened during the year 2000, and the bloom was off the cyber-rose by the time he finished his experiment in advertiser-supported and venture-capital-funded digital self-reliance.)

One last detail.  In 2004, Eric Eldred decided to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Walden by driving his Internet Bookmobile to Walden Pond Reservation and handing out free copies of the book.  A state park supervisor ordered him to stop because he hadn’t requested a permit, on the grounds that his free copies would interfere with sales from the gift shop. (Boston Globe)