Reform by Thoreau

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There is a lot of talk and concern about education these days, but I have heard no one talking about Henry Thoreau and his book. Walden could serve as a manual for American teachers and anyone interested in how to go about creating a good school or a better community.

Thoreau built himself a school for a little more than $28 in 1845. It was a house, yes, but also a school, a shelter in the woods beside a pond to "front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Thoreau had attended Harvard and taught school for a while in Concord, Mass. But in those days it was thought that to educate a child you had to beat him or her, a method Thoreau refused, to his credit, to adopt. He started a new school with his brother John, but when John became ill and died, Henry took to the woods to discover how cheaply and independently he himself could become a student: "Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants."

As a nation, we seem to have forgotten that most of what we call education takes place outside of schools, in homes and communities. A school is not a factory; a school is a community building in which a certain kind of cultural knowledge is revered and passed on. A good teacher is a person who knows and loves some cultural subject or subjects and who enjoys sharing what he or she knows and loves. A good student is someone who has been taught by his or her family and community to value cultural traditions, books, and teachers. A good school is composed of good teachers and good students, though most of the responsibility rests with the adults of the community, both parents and teachers. Of course, a child need not attend a school to become a good student or a good person, and parents can be teachers if they have the time and desire.

The truth is that all adults are teachers and everything adults do influences the young, for better or worse. Today the young are being taught primarily by mass-media machines: television, computers, movie projectors, stereos. Most of this education provided by the machines is pretty awful stuff, and some of it can do real harm, encouraging the young toward cruelty, violence, drug abuse, suicide. To compete with this free-market, electronic onslaught, schools are resorting, mistakenly, I think, to putting television and computers in classrooms, thus opening the academic doors to all sorts of corporate money and messages. "Popular culture" now is distracting parents, teachers, and students from the real culture and knowledge of good, old books. And good, new books, too. Our education machines also discourage families and neighbors from talking to each other; we are losing the oral stories by which we learn who and where we are. It was Thoreau who first noticed that Americans were becoming "the tools of their tools."

If our schools are failing, it is because our communities and families and teachers and administrators are failing to uphold the best of our various American cultural legacies. Our national obsession with science and math (which tends to exclude everything else) and the machines and money to be made from them is also to blame. Not many politicians and educators are lamenting the fact that very few American students leave high school or college having read Walden or even a chapter or two. Here is a sentence from the chapter called "Reading":

"To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem."

The computer is quick and flashy, but the book is still the highest technology we have.

Education is more of an art than a science. Teachers need not be "trained"; teachers need to be well-read (and/or well-practiced) and dedicated. A good school need not be big or packed with the latest contraption. In fact, a good school need not be more elaborate than a good book. And as Thoreau learned at Walden Pond, a lot can be learned by simply walking attentively through the woods or hoeing a bean field or building a school.

Books, nature, the labor of hands--basics we need to get back to.

John Kaufman is an adjunct instructor of English at Kansas City Community College in Kansas City, Kan.

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 40

Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Reform by Thoreau
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