“Meet Mr. Thoreau”


An Introduction

Several years ago, it occurred to me that while L-S was an excellent school, it might as well be located in Cleveland, Ohio, for all that the school, its curriculum, and its students related to our local environment. What made this sense of “disconnection” seem both unfortunate and ironic is that this is an area that tourists from all over the world stream to. And when the Minuteman National Park is completed, millions more will come.

Why do they come?

Part of the story you know. Here were established the first settlements of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, over one-hundred and fifty years before the country itself was founded. Here, only a few miles from the school, one of the key battles of the King Phillips Indian war was fought. In this area, the American Revolution began, Paul Revere rode, and the Minutemen fought.

Only slightly less well known is the fact this area was also the site of a second revolution, though of a more intellectual nature. In Concord, out of which the town of Lincoln was carved, the Transcendentalist Movement was born in the 1830’s. Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and carried forward by Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau, the movement challenged mainstream religious views and social values. Though the Transcendentalists were never more than a handful in number, their vision anticipated the poetry of Walt Whitman, the Beat Rebellion of the 1950’s, the political revolt and the counter-culture of the 1960’s, and the emergence of an environmental consciousness in the United State in the 1970’s.

Lincoln and Sudbury were part of this transcendental world. Thoreau spoke at Bemis Hall in Lincoln. He wrote about Nine-Acre Corner and walked to Nobscot Mountain, where he bemoaned the likelihood that walkers in the future might never know the taste of a wild apple.

Least well known to both tourists or residents is the fact that there is yet another world is this area, a natural world. It is one that connects us directly to the transcendentalists of a century-and-a-half ago. Of course Walden Pond is justly famous and beautiful to behold (that is, when you can find a spot in the parking lot!). However, the huge Sudbury River valley, just a mile below the school, remains a largely unchanged wilderness. As Emerson said, this “other world” is but “one paddle away.” This river valley is the commanding natural fact of the area, yet we can easily go a whole year at L-S without thinking once about it.

History...Ideas...Nature...No, this is not Cleveland, Ohio.

Thoreau once said that he “had traveled a good deal in Concord.” While this must have seemed a modest accomplishment to many of his Harvard classmates, it really expresses Thoreau’s conviction that the wonders of the universe can be found anywhere you happen to be. Walden can be in your backyard, and your own lawn may reveal all the grand principles of nature (well, almost).

My goal and hope in this course is that you also will have an opportunity to travel “a good deal”: To travel through a mind that remains an interesting, luminescent, and challenging landscape...To learn about the world and the issues that shaped Thoreau...To become more aware of the world outside our own bolted school windows, a world which, after all, constitutes your own neighborhood.

As usual, Thoreau said it best:

We boast of our system of education, but why stop at school masters and schoolhouses?  We are all schoolmasters and our schoolhouse is the universe. To attend chiefly to our desk  or school house while we neglect the scenery in which it is placed is absurd.


“What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering stream.” So said Mr. Thoreau. I can’t promise that this course will always keep that brook free flowing, but I will try. Thoreau had many different sides to him, and several of those sides might be expressed at any given time.
Asked by his Harvard class secretary to report on his life in the several years since his graduation, Thoreau wrote with pointed humor: “I will give you some of the monster’s heads. I am a Schoolmaster-a private Tutor-a Surveyor-a Gardener-a Farmer-a Painter, I mean a House-Painter-a Carpenter, a Mason, A Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-Paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster [a poor poet]...” This kind of life does not lend itself to a straight cut ditch.

For this reason, we will not be moving in this course in a linear way, with sequential units. If you crave chronology, the Harding biography can supply this in a clear and engaging way.


Thoreau: The Man & His Times   - An Overview
 - Journaling
 - Exploring Concord
 -  Cabin Solo’s begin

The Naturalist
 - Religion and Transcendentalism   - “Walking”
 - “Walden”
 - Various Nature Projects
 - The Simplicity Project

The Social Critic
 - The Pencil Project
 - The Utopia Project
 - “Life Without Principle”

The Political Rebel
 - Overview
 - In Defense of Captain John Brown
 - On Civil Disobedience
 - The ‘Taking A Stand Project’

Content & Pedagogy

Because this is an elective class which you take in addition to your regular course load, I will very mindful that there’s a limit to how much additional academic work you can take on. There will be no formal essays or papers to write in this course. However,  I  do want you to feel that you have learned something--perhaps even some important things. Here how I envisage the work load:


• The following essays, possibly with some abridgement:

 - Life Without Principle
 - A Pleas for Captain John Brown
 - Civil Disobediance
 - Walking

• Excerpts from the following books:

 - Walden
 - The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals (Shepard, ed.)
 - The Days of Henry Thoreau (Harding)

• Aphorisms from the writings of Thoreau

• Miscellaneous handouts & poems


• Journals

 Each student will keep one.
 More specific directions will be given to you soon.

• Presentations of individual or group projects

A word on pedagogy: I do not see this as lecture course. We will use a regular classroom for discussions of readings,  etc. But at other times we will
be up and around: Camping, boating, working in the wood shop, taking photographs, going for walks, watching the sun rise over Walden Pond,
re-tracing Thoreau’s footsteps in Concord, etc. I want you to learn about the man, his mind, and his world. I also want you share in some of the very same experiences that he had, and then have you compare your own reactions to his.

 I would make education a pleasant thing both to the teacher and the scholar. This   discipline, which we allow to be the end of life, should not be one thing in the   schoolroom, and another in the street. We should seek to be fellow students with   the pupil, and we should learn of, as well as with him, if we would be most helpful   to him...
                                                                                      - Henry David Thoreau

These words set a high and happy standard which I will do my best to emulate as we go forth to meet Mr. Thoreau.

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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