As a young schoolteacher in the 1830s, Henry David Thoreau took his students to meadows and rivers to observe the plant and animal world. They also visited the local newspaper in Concord, Massachusetts, to watch how printers set type. But writing from Walden Pond, where Thoreau moved after his brief teaching stint, he ridiculed the broad public that actually read the paper. “I am sure,” Thoreau declared, “that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper.”
This paradox speaks volumes about Thoreau, who was born 200 years ago today. Denouncing memorization from textbooks, the dominant teaching method of his era, he emphasized human activity as the key to learning. But he also exhibited a snobbish disdain for most human beings, especially when their activities — and their philosophies — differed from his own.
Thoreau’s story provides a cautionary tale for critics of high-stakes testing and accountability, the dominant trends in recent educational reform. Many of these critics share Thoreau’s vision of a more interactive, lively education. But they also frequently echo his impatience with the wider voting public even as they claim to speak for it.
Since 2001, when Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, our schools have been rated and rewarded based upon their students’ performance on standardized tests. In many places, that seems to have promoted precisely the kind of sterile, joyless instruction that Thoreau despised. But like the newspapers that he derided, the test-driven curriculum remains popular among many parents and other citizens. And because popularly elected politicians — not professional educators — set U.S. school policy, reformers will never dislodge the testing regime if they dismiss its supporters as misguided or ignorant.
Thanks to his more famous environmentalism and advocacy of civil disobedience, we tend to forget that Thoreau also was an influential educator. In print and in his own classroom, he called on schools to harness the natural curiosities and energies of children.
Indeed, like so many notable Americans across time, Thoreau loved education and hated school. Education was the stuff of real life: energy, emotion, experience. But he saw established schools as merely a pale imitation, a set of rote exercises that alienated children from the world instead of engaging them in it.
That’s also why school didn’t work, he contended. “Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month — the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this,” Thoreau wrote from Walden, “or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute … and had received a Rogers’ penknife from his father?”
The question answered itself. And in Thoreau’s era, the older you got, the worse school became. Arriving at Harvard as a 16-year-old, he encountered a system that was even more regimented and rote-driven than the schoolhouses he had attended. Students were graded on chapel attendance and daily recitations from their textbooks, which fostered “superficial scholarship” — as Thoreau groused — rather than real knowledge.
Even when he did learn something, moreover, it wasn’t of much use. Looking back on a Harvard course he had taken in “spherical geometry,” Thoreau mocked his professors for imagining that the class might help its students navigate boats.
“To my astonishment I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation!” Thoreau wrote. “Why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor, I should have known more about it.”
After Thoreau graduated from Harvard, he and his brother John set up their own school to correct these deficiencies. They surveyed the school grounds and planted crops with the students, who learned basic mathematics and science along the way. And they took numerous journeys to outdoor sites — hence the term “field trips” — where the students found out about local history as well.
The Thoreaus had to close the school when John fell ill from tetanus, which took his life the following year. Then Henry David Thoreau took his famous retreat into the woods at Walden, where he ruminated on the beauties of the wilderness — and the follies of his fellow townspeople.
“What does our Concord culture amount to?” he asked. “Our reading, our conversation and thinking, are on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.”
When the people weren’t engaging in idle gossip and chatter, they were grimly going about their day-to-day work of farming, trade and industry. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau wrote. That’s perhaps his most quoted passage, and it’s certainly his most condescending one. Thoreau lived a privileged life that shielded him from the hardships and worries confronting average Americans. Despite his much-vaunted claims to self-sufficiency at Walden, he frequently walked back to his childhood home to get fed by his doting mother and sisters.
Most of all, Thoreau didn’t have kids of his own to feed. So he was often blind to the constraints and duties that most Americans faced. Demanding an education that engaged the real world, he was shockingly oblivious of it himself.
That should serve as a warning to today’s education reformers. In the era of No Child Left Behind and its recent offspring, Every Student Succeeds, high-stakes testing has arguably rendered some American schooling even more rote-driven than it was in Thoreau’s time. But these measures remain popular, especially in many poorer communities, where advocates warn that loosening the requirements will leave kids even further behind.
Right or wrong, education reformers who scornfully dismiss this concern won’t get any further than Thoreau did. Even as they try to push education in a direction more in line with Thoreau’s educational vision, reformers need to consider the perspectives of citizens who see the world differently. They must combine Thoreau’s idealism about children with a kinder view of adults, who know more about their own kids than Thoreau was willing — or, perhaps, able — to admit.
“March without the people,” Thoreau’s friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “and you march into the night.” Writing them off will only delay the dawn.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania, and he is the author (with Emily Robertson) of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”