Teaching Thoreau In a Hyper-Connected World

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Walden Pond
Walden Pond

Nashville English teacher Elizabeth Smith introduced Thoreau’s Walden by asking her AP juniors if they were ever truly alone in a hyper-connected world -- even without a smartphone. In doing so, she wanted to emphasize how Thoreau’s Transcendentalist experiment living alone in the woods might be nearly impossible to replicate in modern, plugged-in lives -- at least not without some effort.

“One student said that he gets panicked if he goes an hour without a text message,” she said, “and he has to blow up his friends' phones with messages to make sure they are still out there.” Other students, she said, bristled at the idea they were sheep in the digital herd, and liked to think of themselves as being able to manage a healthy balance between solitude and digital connection.

But for both adults and kids -- parents, teachers, and students -- because we have the luxury of being instantly and constantly connected, “Being alone feels like a problem to be solved,” said MIT Professor Sherry Turkle in the moving TED Talk based on her book, Alone, Together. Based on her research, Turkle argued that relationships maintained through texting and social media might make kids feel connected, but because the phone is always buzzing, they may miss valuable opportunities to experience real solitude, which is vital for self-reflection. “If we don’t teach our children how to be alone,” she said, “they will only know how to be lonely.”

Some teachers say there has never been a more exciting time to teach Thoreau’s ideas of solitude, time in nature, and deliberate living, because students are hungry for self-reflection. Sandy Stott, who has been teaching Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism at Concord Academy in Concord, Mass., for 20 years, said his students today are both constantly plugged in, and eager for a different experience.


“My classroom, like many, is fully wired,” he said. “I can get the whole web on screen in a few clicks. But because this has been their world all along, it's a so-what world.” While he’s happy to use the tech available to get business done, Stott wants students to experience what Thoreau experienced without any tech help. It also doesn’t hurt that Walden Pond is nearby, and the students can walk the same paths that Thoreau walked nearly 200 years ago.

Part of students’ responding to the serenity and beauty of the pond, Stott said, is letting it retain its mystery -- something students don’t experience often. “I hold [going to] the pond until the late part of the course. Then, after students have read most of Walden, we go there,” he said. “We go before dawn so that, when the sun comes up, when morning arrives, we are at the pond and at the house site. There is no one else there, save an angler or two. Though we are there only for a short time, the effect is often pronounced -- they are at Henry's pond at the time of day he saw as most alive, and, despite their usual preference for sleeping late, they too are alive.”

While the reading and the writing are essential, Stott supposes that the morning at Walden Pond, or the other nature walks he’s incorporated into the course, sticks with students longer, and he emphasizes to students the point of Thoreau’s solitude, and the importance of spending time alone: having time to think for yourself.

In his essay “Nature,” which heavily influenced Thoreau, “Emerson asks, ‘Why should not we also enjoy an original relation with the universe?’ In other words, why take someone else's word for it? Why rely on tradition and religion and professors and parents and other interpreters to tell you what's what?” he said. Stott made Emerson’s question the central one that frames the course. And he believes to really answer that question -- for each student to begin to carve out her place in the world -- they need to go out in it, not explore it from behind the door of a classroom.

Stott said when he began teaching Thoreau, he focused on good reading and writing, a practice to which he's still dedicated. But he realized that students saw Walden as another in a series of texts they worked on their way to college, and knew they needed more.

“Walden aims at more than that, aims in fact at possibly derailing this sort of lockstep. And it asks the student out of the classroom, out of the usual box and into a world that demands more,” he said.

Of course connection and collaboration with peers, both face-to-face and with technology, is invaluable to teens’ learning and social development, and some research suggests social media time is even beneficial. But when time spent focused on outward tasks far outweighs time for daydreaming -- a virtue Thoreau named an “incessant good fortune” -- digital natives might find Thoreau’s solitude novel, even refreshing, and may want to try it themselves. Even if it’s only to discover they can last an hour without receiving a text.