Thoreau Down

thoreauA friend who reads this blog said, “You talk about Thoreau a lot,” and then added, “too much.” A little Thoreau suffices for most people. They disapprove of his allusions, metaphors, twisted inversions, deep ironies. Or they can’t stand how stridently he disapproves. Or they complain how irrelevant he was to his own time, how much more irrelevant now. To those who damn him entirely, he’s a crank seeking a version of humanity that has never, and will never, exist.

Next week I’m teaching an alternative class at my school called “Thoreau Down” and will be immersed in Thoreau. Part of the class is to give up television, iPods, computers, and phones, and so, between Monday and Friday, I’ll be unplugged from electronic media entirely. My next post will appear on its own, but I won’t be checking stats or reading comments. No email, no Facebook, no Netflix, no online news or gossip, no listless TV.

Believe me, I don’t worship Thoreau the way my friend thinks, but I do admire him as an artist. Thoreau says, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” To me, he finger paints with life. In rejecting received wisdom and convention, he experiences and assesses everything anew, weighs it, shakes it, scrutinizes it to determine its worth. “I know of no more encouraging fact,” he says, “than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.”

My partner teacher and I aren’t proselytizing for Thoreau. We don’t want students to accept his solutions any more than he accepted others’ because, after all, if authority needs questioning, his needs questioning too. We just want them to study which “needs” may be proffered by advertising, tradition, and all the other manifestations of “the usual.” We hope, for a school week at least, to make them “front” their own essentials and discover what’s integral to life and what’s embellishment. There are possibilities they’re too busy or blinded by circumstance or prevailing opinion to see. Those who accept the challenge of shedding technology—some will shirk, it’s a given—may discover currents in life previously invisible to them, arcing through air and looping around trees, weeds, and their feet.

When I describe this project to colleagues, they often ask, “Yes, but what will you do?” We have them every day from 9 until 3.

When they enter the classroom on Monday, they’ll find it stripped entirely of furniture, with just a blue masking tape rectangle in the exact dimensions of Thoreau’s original cabin. That space they’ll be expected to transform into a cabin somehow. Each will receive $28.12.5 (the amount Thoreau spent building his cabin) to cover their lunches for a week. We will obviously read a lot from the book and study its particulars, but we’ll also read the thinking of authors after Thoreau, look at statistics about American consumption, engage in outdoor activities designed to reawaken their senses, examine developing technology critically for what it will add and take away, put conventional wisdom to the test, apply Thoreau’s thinking to contemporary scenarios, and entertain visitors who will address aspects of Thoreau and/or discuss their lives in light of his ideas. It will be a full week.

We also expect to argue. Thoreau wanted to be a provocateur and, if he’s sometimes a bit too vociferous, he’d say it’s because we’re too complacent. He raises his volume to overcome our noise, and I accept that. Some of the students, however, may think they’re being shouted down, and I pray I can watch their defensiveness gather without mine rising to meet it. My greatest service to them will be remaining calm, letting them make of his ideas what they can, assuring only they fully understand him, his richest implications.

In the introduction to the edition of Walden we’ll be using, Bill McKibben credits Thoreau with asking two main questions, “How much is enough?” and “How do I know what I want?” Even as McKibben addresses the first, he creates more questions:

If “How much is enough?” is the subversive question for the consumer society, “How can I hear my own heart?” is the key assault of the Information Age. How do I know what I want? What is my true desire?

If I can take them one half-step toward answers and living deliberately, I will have accomplished something—both for them and me.


Filed under America, Dissent, Doubt, Education, Essays, Experiments, High School Teaching, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Resolutions, Teaching, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work

5 responses to “Thoreau Down

  1. Joe Smolko

    What a terrific project! You are to be commended for your creativity. I can’t wait to hear how it goes, but I guess we won’t find out until the week is over.

    • dmarshall58

      Now that the project is over, I can report.

      We planned the week well, and, generally, I think the students appreciated it. The chief challenge for them, however, was understanding the spirit of Thoreau. At first, they looked to us for answers on about what they should do, and then they stopped asking because that meant they could seek the easy solutions that offered the least discomfort, commitment, and effort.

      Of the 12 people in the project, only two or three really gave up technology. In that sense, the experiment failed utterly. We wanted them to experience life without their electronic satellites, and few did for any meaningful time. In one case, a student entirely refused, saying that he liked his phone and just didn’t see why he should have to go without it, even for a day. That answer was particularly disheartening given how clearly we defined what the project before students chose it. I don’t know why someone would sign-up if he or she wasn’t willing to try doing without technology.

      I wish I had a better report, but I have to be honest. Who knows, maybe Thoreau would be proud they disobeyed, but it didn’t feel like healthy grappling. There’s a fine line between deliberately questioning authority and simply sidestepping it. Rather than challenging Thoreau, they often simply ignored him.

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  3. I echo the previous comment, that this is a great idea for a project. To shake up the contents of what we’ve filled our life with and examine them, to investigate our relationship and feeling toward them — as well as conventional wisdom. This sounds to be the kind of experience that students will remember, that aspects and things absorbed from it could resonate with them for a long time.

    • dmarshall58

      I hope some of the students will remember our week, but I don’t have high hopes. If I were to do it again–I won’t–I’d look for better ways to engage the text. Thoreau is difficult enough to understand, and his ideas are challenging, often counter-intuitive and a genuine affront to people deeply integrated with technology. The students were sometimes entirely dismissive, forcing me into the defensive territory I feared.

      A colleague during my first years of teaching advised me against teaching works I loved. I feel I’ve learned that lesson anew.

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