The New Yorker
February 1, 2011
Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by William Major, an associate professor of English at the University of Hartford’s Hillyer College, who, inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s “call for simplicity and solitude,” asked his students give up their cell phones for five days. Major dubbed the experiment “the extra credit they’ve been waiting for,” and on the final day of discussing “Walden,” did the unthinkable and stored his sophomores’ freedom in his desk drawer.
While Major’s assignment may have dropped a few jaws in his classroom, the bulk of the complaining has come from professors, students, and parents at other universities. In the comments section of Major’s article, people with names like “not_a_luddite” have posted remarks that suggest a Thoreauvian attitude is no less controversial today than it was during Thoreau’s lifetime: “Most students who are not the children of the well-to-do have jobs…. There is a serious schism here between the rich and the poor, and your elitism is showing, Dr. Major.” (Thoreau, in contrast, though he also recognized that change and experimental living were often handled best by students, felt that the prescriptions in Walden were “perhaps … more particularly addressed to poor students.”)
Other comments have accused Major’s experiment of being dangerous for women. “Not_a_luddite” weighed in again, writing that “young, undergraduate females” and “nice girls” “did not, back in the day, travel by themselves after nightfall.” Today, many commentators argued, women have gained their freedom based on the fact that they have a hand-held device that allows them to call for help in a matter of seconds. One woman, a resident director at a university, responded, “Parents do indeed think their college child is dead if they don’t immediately answer their cell phone.”
My favorite comment was one accusing another commentator of being “a trembling dogsbody who’s scared to death to breathe in front of the boss.” The “dogsbody” in question had written several comments along the lines of “If you are employed today, no matter what sector, you need a phone and you have to respond in a reasonable time if your boss calls it. IT CAN’T BE IN SOMEONE ELSES POSSESION FOR A COUPKE OF DAYS!!! IT IS NON-NEGOTIABLE!!!” [sic].
A rereading of “Walden” serves as a reminder that Thoreau was quite the iconoclast, and not just about civilized living: he was violently anti-slavery, anti-organized religion, and, one might even say unpatriotic. Thoreau fell out of friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who later described his former friend as being “militant” and “in constant opposition.” Even Thoreau’s publishers, Ticknor and Fields, agreed to publish “Walden” “at their own risk” due to the fact that the author’s first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” failed miserably. “Walden” is filled with some of the most absurd advice I’ve ever read, as well as some of the most affecting.
On vegetarianism—“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.”
On public transportation—“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”
On shelter—“Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary.”
On books—“They [students] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?”
On conversation—“We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are.”
If we were to “suck out the marrow of life” using Thoreau’s methods, we would be silent, self-taught vegetarians who planted bean-fields in our front yards. William Major is requesting something much less extreme of his students. I think a student’s right—dare I say obligation—is to give herself the freedom to think, to question, to get lost in the woods near campus, to break out that expensive Christmas stationary and write a letter to her mother. Those of us who are unable to relinquish the incessant vibration that occurs from within the depths of our leather satchels for five days are certainly jealous of all that time spent “unplugged.”
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