What kind of world would we be living in today if people had taken Thoreau’s advice 150 years ago?
“To act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions; and I am confident that, as our circumstances are more flourishing, our means are greater than the nobleman’s. New England can hire all the wise men in the world to come and teach her, and board them round the while, and not be provincial at all. That is the uncommon school we want. Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men. If it is necessary, omit one bridge over the river, go round a little there, and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us.”
In some ways, New Englanders tried this. Even Harvard was an intellectual backwater when Thoreau was a student there, mired in rote learning and recitation, but it got better. Reformers pushed for public schools, lending libraries, Lyceums. New Englanders became known for this sort of thing. Even in my part of the United States, the central part, a number of towns were founded by settlers from New England. It seems that each of these little towns had a college at some point in its history, often founded when the town itself was barely past the log cabin stage. Often these colleges weren’t very substantial and didn’t last long, but the basic idea was there: education was central to civilization.
To this day you see many community-based educational programs, but more recently technology has allowed people to come together across geographic space and form virtual communities for the sake mutual education. Today we have a much greater opportunity to fulfill Henry’s vision than did the people of his own time.
But will we? Notice the first three words of the quoted passage: “To act collectively.” That’s where things break down in the United States. In many ways we’ve become less good at this in recent decades, at least where our public institutions are involved. You could say there are two streams in our history, flowing side by side: people coming together for mutual benefit, and people trying desperately to ensure than none of those benefits spill over onto anyone outside their perceived group. For all his love of individual freedom and suspicion of do-gooders, here Thoreau comes down firmly on the side of collective action.
…And that brings us to the end of the chapter, “Reading.”
(About “A Year in Walden”)