Building your own school (Walden 30)

Continuing the thought from #29 about the value of doing things yourself, Thoreau suggests, after describing the construction of his little house, that students participate in building their schools and colleges.

“I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them in this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.”

Booker T. Washington. Wikipedia

Booker T. Washington. Wikipedia

I know of one school that did this by necessity. When Booker T. Washington, a former slave, founded the Tuskegee Institute, the students actually helped build the original buildings. The students were black in the American South in the late nineteenth century — going to public school was out of the question, and so the only way for them to have a school was to build it themselves.

It was a terrible situation — even with an education the students faced a lifetime of bigotry — but Washington tried to make the best of it. He felt that by building their school, the students also built character. Had Thoreau still been living, the two men would have had a lot to talk about.

Here is what Henry, an avid reader, thought about hands-on learning:

“How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics. If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where anything is professed and practised but the art of life; — to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made… 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 — or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers’ penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?”

In Henry’s time, schooling was largely rote memorization. This was even true of his education at Harvard (which, granted, was not yet the world-class university it would later become). From what I’m hearing from educators and relatives, some schools are catching on to what Henry was talking about. He recognized not only the benefits of hands-on learning, but also more broadly that for an education to be truly valuable it could not be separated from practical life, but had to be interwoven with it. The whole person must be educated. And scholarship must rub up against reality.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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