Professor Vander Zee
28 March 2016
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. “Morning is when I am awake and there is dawn in me,” he says. 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 of their 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; he critiqued society for placing too much emphasis on the material world. He 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, a period known as Transcendentalism. Notably, his attitudes toward reform were informed by his transcendental efforts to live a spiritually meaningful life in nature. Nature study became a philosophical activity, revealing to Thoreau and other transcendentalists a way of awakening the inner life to complete contentment. His experience was a spiritual renewal, whereby nature was the primary teacher and growth was the primary lesson.
Walden is a rich and elusive book with many faucets for critical thought, but I will focus primarily on Thoreau’s ideas about teaching and learning. This essay explores the ways by which Thoreau’s Walden offers a transcendentalist approach to education. Researchers and professionals in the field of education believe transcendental learning is essentially holistic in nature and provides rich educational vision that is a tonic to today’s systemized schooling. Though critics have noted Walden’s significance as a visionary text for education, I would like to explore more fully Thoreau’s idea of continual rebirth and its practical application to 21st century pedagogy. Closer attention to Walden’s social critique, idealist language, and his spiritual background will reveal the motives informing his notion of a more “uncommon school.”
Some critics argue against the culture of prescription that dominates teaching and learning today and instead advocate for teachers and policy makers to reexamine everything like Thoreau does. Exploring the tensions of the common school movement provides a critical framework for discussing issues with schooling today, where Walden seems to offer a solution. However, some believe this solution is a paradoxical as Thoreau’s complete isolation at Walden Pond. As a future high school English teacher, I believe Thoreau’s unconventional process of learning should be incorporated in 21st century pedagogy. I plan to teach this text in my classroom one day, so I hope to consider more specifically the teaching themes of Walden.