Tag Archives: learning

What we can learn from Thoreau’s testing the “bottomless” Walden Pond (Walden 182)

While measuring the depth of Walden Pond, Thoreau noticed that the point of greatest depth lay exactly at the intersection of the pond’s greatest length and its greatest width. Intrigued, he began to wonder. “I said to myself, Who knows but this hint would conduct to the deepest part of the ocean as well as of a pond or puddle? Is not this the rule also for the height of mountains, regarded as the opposite of valleys? We know that a hill is not highest at its narrowest part.”

While he never fully resolved the question, he took preliminary steps to test it.  Ecologist Daniel Botkin wrote a fascinating article about this, “Henry David Thoreau and the Depth of Walden Pond.” (adapted from his book, No Man’s Garden)

In it, Botkin explains how Thoreau’s work is a good example of using a scientific approach to answer questions. The entire piece is worth reading and goes into some of Henry’s other projects that aren’t covered in Walden, but here I will quote only the opening paragraphs: Continue reading

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The wild men (Walden 179)

“Early in the morning, while all things are crisp with frost, men come with fishing-reels and slender lunch, and let down their fine lines through the snowy field to take pickerel and perch; wild men, who instinctively follow other fashions and trust other authorities than their townsmen, and by their goings and comings stitch towns together in parts where else they would be ripped. They sit and eat their luncheon in stout fear-naughts on the dry oak leaves on the shore, as wise in natural lore as the citizen is in artificial.” — Henry David Thoreau, “The Pond in Winter,” Walden

As with the Canadian woodchopper that Henry wrote about in an earlier chapter (see this post) , he is fascinated with — and admires — men of low social standing live close to nature and are “wise in natural lore.” They are not bookish like Henry. Theirs is a world deeds and not of words — they “know and can tell much less than they have done.” They live in a material world and not an abstract one.

“His life itself passes deeper in Nature than the studies of the naturalist penetrate.”

Thoreau is himself a naturalist, of course, and recognizes that in some ways these uneducated men understand nature more deeply than he does. Cocky as he can sometimes be, he recognizes the value of other kinds learning besides books.

His goal seems to be to combine the experiential knowledge of the “wild man” with the learning of the scholar and the aesthetics of a poet.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

Thoreau on the benefits of getting lost (Walden 120)

“It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time.”

Are you kidding me, Henry?

In truth, “lost” is more a matter of attitude than anything else. It’s said that the great woodsman Daniel Boone claimed that he’d never been lost, though “I was once bewildered for three days.” Only those who can live off the land can afford to look at it that way.

So what does it mean to be lost? Henry was no Daniel Boone, and, as usual, he has something larger in mind. He continues: Continue reading

What if we had taken Thoreau’s advice about education? (Walden 75)

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.” Continue reading

Thoreau on “uncommon schools.” What do we mean by good jobs and education? (Walden 74)

“It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure — if they are, indeed, so well off — to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden

Technology has enabled an expansion of continuing education in ways that Henry couldn’t even imagine. But what I find interesting here is something that he doesn’t draw attention to, probably because to him it’s so obvious, and in one way or another he’s been talking about it throughout the book: notice that he sees education not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. What else would you do if you had leisure in your old age but keep studying and learning?

This attitude is at odds with our growing perception of education as being strictly job training. Everyone wants the next generation to be qualified for good jobs and to be able to provide for their families. But there’s a world of difference in saying, “I want them to get an education so they can get a good job,” and “I want them to get good jobs that provide the time and resources to continue their education.” Not only is the order of priority different in these two sentences, but “good job” and “education” take on different meanings as well.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

Oh no! Someone’s wrong on the Internet!

Wise words from David Cain at Raptitude, in a post titled, “Why most internet activists don’t change any minds”. I’ll have more to say about it below. Cain writes:

On Facebook I quietly unsubscribe from friends who regularly make angry issue-related posts, even if they’re right. I don’t want to be pummeled by “truth,” no matter how true it is.

I understand why they do it. I’ve done it. Ignorance — of overfishing, of puppy mills, of normalized sexism, of what vaccines can and can’t do — can be genuinely dangerous, and wanting to reduce this ignorance is understandable.

Some are able to do it carefully and diplomatically, and I have learned a lot from these people.

But most internet activists let contempt seep into the message. It becomes about making others wrong instead of trying to help them be right. Just visit virtually any issue-related message board. It’s adversarial. It’s normal to blame people for their ignorance.

Ignorance, if that’s what it really is, isn’t something people can fairly be blamed for. We don’t choose what not to grasp, what not to have been taught, what not to have understood the significance of.

Ignorance is blind to itself. When you’re trying to rectify ignorance in someone else, it’s easy to forget that you’re ignorant too, in ways you can’t know. Read full post at Raptitude.

Continue reading

The old have no very important advice to give the young (Walden 8)

“One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

I wonder if Thoreau would have remained as dismissive of older people had he lived longer than age 44. Maybe so. (And what did his older friend and onetime mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson think of this youthful bluster?)

Or how would an old Henry would react to a young person who was as dismissive of his generation as he had been of his elders? Would he get all huffy and complain about young people these days, or would he smile?

And would the smile be one of wistful nostalgia, or one of genuine camaraderie? Continue reading