Friday, October 26, 2007

Thoreau as critical thinker

There are times, I think, when one could do away with a couple hundred pages of the standard texts on rhetoric foisted on college freshmen and, instead, have them read and think carefully about certain passages from Walden, like this one, from "Economy":

One farmer says to me, "You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with;" and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plough along in spite of every obstacle. Some things are really necessaries of life in some circles, the most helpless and diseased, which in others are luxuries merely, and in others still are entirely unknown.


Winston said...

Popularly, it is thought that Thoreau was a deep philosopher in search of universal truth. While that gives us a rather romantic shelf on which to store his writings, it ironically misses the truth. HDT was a loner, quite introverted, uneasy with people, who was considered by others quite the odd fellow. He lived alone out by a pond and happened to keep a diary, a detailed and very valuable journal as it turns out.

One of the most magical things about his writings is not that he laid out truths for us, although he did, but that in arriving at his truisms he either very cleverly or naively and unknowingly uncovered "falsisms." By being able to identify and sort out that which isn't, he arrived at what is.

Unwittingly he was probably the greatest philosopher we have seen, at least it terms of useful day-to-day tidbits that we can use for living. All of this is my take on him, and I realize others will think me way off base. This was a popular topic for debate into the wee hours when I was in college.

R. Sherman said...

Actually, the method you describe is how I was taught comp at Mizzou. It wasn't until the EMBLOS was in grad school that the current "Rhet-comp" stuff started making a splash, if I remember correctly. Then, of course, came the "Expressiveist" school and then the social critical interpretive crap, and now nobody can write his/her paper bag.


Sheila said...

That is a remarkable passage, John.

Educator-To-Be said...

When Thoreau is taught today, it is in literature classes, not writing or rhetoric classes, at least in my experience and the experiences of my friends from other universities.


John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting, all.

Just a couple of general comments . . .

For me, Thoreau's value in a class whose focus is research and rhetoric is his clear-eyedness, his, to paraphrase him, steady observing of realities only. His isn't a prescription for how to live; it's more like a procedure for discovering that prescription for how to live. His procedure is the critical method, in other words. To my mind, the passage I quoted above is that method in a nutshell: Just, you know, look around, rather than ape what others have told you. The concluding sentence, meanwhile, is likewise a recurring theme throughout Walden: what we take to be Truth is less likely to be Truth if it's unknown to or a luxury for others.

Amy and Randall are right: though maybe the greatest rhetorician our nation has yet produced, Thoreau isn't (usually) taught that way. That's partly his fault: I mean, what genre exactly does Walden belong to, after all? Yet that's precisely its value to me (and not just as an instructor, either). It deploys the features of various genres to accomplish its goal of "brag[ging] lustily as chenticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake [his] neighbors up."

And just as a side-note: after teaching an excerpt from Walden on Wednesday in hopes of illustrating for my students how I'd like for them to approach their reading for research later on, a student came up to me and thanked me. "I really needed to hear that today," she said. Would that I could have legitimately gone home after that--I felt that my work was done for the day, that that was about as good as it would get.

Ashley said...

I beleive was assigned to read some Thoreau in high school, but perhaps I am confusing him with someone less memorable, since I'm so unsure.
I felt the same way as the student you mentoined after reading Thoreau in your class, but was just too reserved to share. I have no idea exactly what it meant to me, but it caused me to put Thoreau on a list of authors I highly respect and want to read more of. Your teaching methods are very refreshing precisly because you remind your students that writing and literature is, for lack of a better word, great because it cannot be contained in a little box. Too often students leave high school thinking English courses are all the same. Lastly, I'm reminded of how much I valued your course which was a meager 8 weeks long!
Thoreau amazes me in the way he eloquently captures his ideas. I can't help but grin when I think of how many of the world's most talented were actually very strange, introverted and what we would often call "bizarre" people. There contributions were not of the social kind, but ultimately were longer lasting.