I decided at the beginning of the year that I wanted to reread Thoreau’s Walden and his On the Duties of Civil Disobedience, to see what they have to say to me as an adult and to attempt this experiment of blogging about what it means to live deliberately in the 21st century. So, I am slowly rereading Walden now, digesting a few pages at a time, considering what he saw in 1845 that applies to the world we live in today.
To some who probably have never seriously read Thoreau and to some who did read him and did not agree with his philosophy, Thoreau was a spoiled, crack-pot dreamer who didn’t work a regular job and who sponged off folks while claiming to live economically and wisely. In fact, as I was recently discussing Thoreau and this blog with an acquaintance, I found his negative attitude about Thoreau’s was almost viscral, as he nearly spat the words, “Oh, that Yankee lived in a hut for only two years, and his whole life he sleazed meals off of friends and family. He was a shiftlessness, intellectual snob.”
But the more that I read into Thoreau as the sixty-one-year-old that I am — seasoned with forty more years of living since I last read his writings — the more relevant Thoreau’s philosophy of living wisely and deliberately is for me and the more I find that his thinking is relevant for our contemporary culture. One page after another rings true on a number of topics.
For example, Thoreau’s opinion on education can be compared and contrasted with our present North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory’s stance on education. Governor McCrory lambasted liberal arts education as elitist and disconnected to the job market and said that he would “propose legislation to change the higher education funding formula in the state ‘not based on how many butts are in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.’” (See: Huffington Post)
Of course, the jobs about which the Governor is speaking are jobs created in what he and the present majority legislature are designing as a “business-friendly” state, meaning a state where government deregulation permits industries to pollute with impunity in exchange for jobs that often may involve high risks to the environment, natural resources, and public health. Why would the Governor and polluting industries want educated young people to get a liberal arts education, to learn to think deeply about issues, and to question the political and business status quo?
For Thoreau, who graduated from Harvard and had experienced the academic world first-hand, there is the danger that higher education can be elitist and wasteful. Yet Thoreau didn’t believe as Governor McCrory that students should be shaped for the jobs but that they should be educated for wise living which clearly does not include destroying the only environment we have.
According to Thoreau:
“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically but practically.” (pg. 13)