To Awake the Perpetual Morning:
A Transcendentalist’s Approach to Education in Thoreau’s Walden
“All intelligences awake with the morning,” Henry David Thoreau references from the Vedas during his early arrival at Walden Pond (393). “Morning is when I am awake and there is dawn in me” he says (394). Thoreau was fascinated by what he called a man’s inner life. He believed that men and women were leading unfulfilling lives against the current of nature, lives that did not tap into the full potential and power of one’s human spirit. Walden, published in 1854, is Thoreau’s account of nearly two years spent at Walden Pond, a place in the woods not far from his home in Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s motive for embarking on this wilderness experiment emerged from his growing dissatisfaction with the current societal state surrounding him. He critiqued society for placing too much emphasis on the material world and sought to explore higher dimensions of individualism by removing himself from civilization and journeyed to embrace a life of simplicity and solitude.
Walden has much to teach us about Thoreau’s inner life and its messages are dependent, in a fundamental sense, on an ever-renewing capability to begin again. His private struggles were certainly not isolated, as much religious and social upheaval was occurring in the mid-nineteenth century in New England, during a movement known as Transcendentalism. Notably, his attitudes toward reform were informed by his transcendental efforts to live a spiritually meaningful life in nature. This vision of a better world was achieved through a faith in self-reform rather than social reform. Nature study became a philosophical activity, revealing to Thoreau and other transcendentalists a way of awakening the inner life to complete contentment. His experience, according to Thoreau scholar Robinson, was a spiritual renewal, whereby nature was the primary teacher and growth was the primary lesson (16). Although Thoreau’s Walden primarily focuses on self-reform, he believed this individual transformation would ignite a collective effort for social change; after all, he did return to society after his renewal at the pond.
Walden is a rich and elusive book with many facets for critical thought, but I focused primarily on Thoreau’s ideas about teaching and learning. My essay explored the ways by which Thoreau and other transcendentalists offer a visionary approach to education. Current scholars and practicing teachers believe transcendental learning is essentially holistic in nature and provides rich educational vision that is a tonic to today’s systemized schooling. Closer attention to Walden’s social critique, idealist language, and Thoreau’s idea of continual rebirth will reveal the motives informing his notion of a more “uncommon school.” Though critics have noted Walden’s significance as a visionary text for education, I will explain its specific relevance to the topic of school standardization, with recent initiatives such as Common Core and No Child Left Behind. Furthermore, I will explore its practical application to 21st century pedagogy.
In my research, I first examined John Miller’s book Transcendental Learning: The Educational Legacy of Alcott, Emerson, Peabody, and Thoreau. Miller narrows his focus on the educational vision of four transcendentalists, who devoted much of their life to teaching and learning, and who have left an important legacy, with a vision of education worth examining today. Following this, I introduce David Greunewald, current high school teacher, and his essay for the Harvard Educational Review journal titled “Teaching and Learning with Thoreau: Honoring Critique, Experimentation, Wholeness, and the Places Where We Live.” This essay weaves a narrative of his education and teaching together with Henry David Thoreau’s comments on education. Next, I look at a book sponsored by the MLA publication’s committee, Approaches to Teaching Thoreau’s Walden and Other Works, where twenty-four teachers offer ideas for presenting Thoreau to students in a variety of settings. The essays touch on approaches to teaching Walden, along with strategies for teaching outside the conventional classroom setting. Lastly, I explore the life-long learning model presented by philosopher Paul Standish in his article “Uncommon Schools: Stanley Cavell and the Teaching of Walden.” Standish analyzes author Stanley Cavell’s version of Walden’s teaching, with special attention to its conception of language and its idea of continual rebirth.
David Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water,” delivered to the Class of 2005 at Kenyon College is a modern example of how Thoreau’s educational vision lives on today. His speech offers many valuable parallels to Walden in the ways it emphasizes self-awareness, critiques society, and looks at the inner-self as a source of revitalization. Wallace notes the dangers of education to enable our “tendency to over-intellectualize stuff,” instead of paying attention to what’s going on around and inside of us (2). The liberal-arts cliché, Wallace believes, is about “learning how to think” (3). More precisely, “it means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to” he contends, and “choos[ing] how you construct meaning from experience.” (3). Walden resounds this same idea: “What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?” (411). In essence, both writers are emphasizing the choice we have in what we see and how we make meaning of it. Education in the 21st century must be reformed to allow for students to learn how to think.
Here is a link to the speech “This is Water.”
I’ve talked with Matthew Foley who teaches English at Charleston County School of the Arts and he is a big advocate of mindfulness in schools. MiSP (Mindfulness in Schools Project) is definitely a creative solution to some of the problems facing education today. If you want to learn more about MiSP, started by schoolteachers in 2007, check out this link.