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.