Learning with Thoreau

NWF   |   June 22, 2009

1085132_48908762 A short-and-sweet story at the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that even English majors can get their hands dirty at Furman University:

"The course was about Henry David Thoreau's Walden,
but instead
of simply reading the memoir and discussing it in a traditional
classroom setting, David Bernardy took his class to a wooded area near
a 30-acre lake on the college's campus to build a cabin similar to the
one Thoreau had written about in his book," says the report.

Thoreau might have approved. Considered a pioneer of nature writing, he is often referenced by modern environmentalists and social justice advocates who admire his commitment to deliberately living well with less, his thoughts on equality, and his willingness to spend most of his time out in the natural world, providing for himself and learning about his environment. Walden is as much an examination of the ways people should live as a memoir, and the questions Thoreau poses are as valid today as when they were written, particularly in the face of large-scale environmental collapse. So, as this group of students read Thoreau and then put themselves in a similar place, doing similar work, one imagines they were able to gain more from the text than they would have by simply reading it in an American Lit course.

Drew Woten, a sophomore in the course, believes it was a success. He said, "It helped us come to appreciate what he did,
and to learn what it's like to really use your hands and use
engineering and construction, as well as problem solving." He adds that Thoreau would have found it "silly for someone to sit in a classroom and just listen to lecturing."

More and more, faculty are deciding that students need these chances to learn differently. Bernardy says, "I think anytime you can help the students understand the text through
something tangible and experiential, you create pathways of
understanding that go beyond typical classroom learning."

Image credit: bjearwicke/stock.xchng

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Published: June 22, 2009