On Not Being Led – Henry’s Finger

For many readers, Henry Thoreau seems like an insistent finger, always poking and prodding, always wondering in a tactile way if you are awake. And some – I’m thinking now of those assigned readings in Walden or one of the essays – stir grumpily and follow along. Picture so many sleepy bears poked from what they hoped would be their long winter’s naps.

Poke: “But men labor under a mistake.” (Walden)
Prod: “It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you lead…” (Walden)
Poke: “…lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility…” (Walden)
Prod: “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.” (Walden)
Poke: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.” (Walden)

And that is all within the first seven pages. “Whoa,” I recall a student saying early one semester, “the man should ease up.”

All of this assigned attention would, I imagine, mildly gratify Henry Thoreau; he was, after all, a writer who wished to be read. But over time, I’ve come to think of Henry’s finger as a pointer rather than a poker. Once we are awake and ambling along with him, he is forever pointing out what he sees and senses. And in that pointing Henry Thoreau becomes the teacher.

All of this came to mind the other day when I read an opinion piece written for The Chronicle of Higher Education by an Emory College professor (see link below). The essay was another lament about the preparedness of said professor’s students and the decline of secondary education brought on by what he saw as too much attention paid to narrative writing at the expense of its analytic cousin. O, the indignities this pro-fessor must now put up with. Perhaps he must teach.

My sympathy waned, however, when I noticed that the professor characterized himself as an “educator.” There, in a word, was the difference. True to the word’s root in the Latin verb ducere, to lead, this educator saw himself as leading students out – clearly leading them out of darkness and into the amply-lit spaces of his mind. He would educate; they would follow.

How different, I thought, from a teacher, who, true also to her or his word’s roots (the index finger is an old definition of the word), points out what s/he sees and often expects the student to create her or his own meanings from it. Here was Thoreau’s finger, pointing to all he encountered, to everything he saw and sensed and then asking in a hundred different ways, What do you think of this? What do you see?

Long after my student said “Whoa” and hoped that Henry would “ease up,” we emerged from the pages of Walden and that student looked up. “So,” he said, “the last thing Thoreau wants us to do is follow him.”

Exactly, I thought. Thoreau’s a teacher; if you wake up and walk with him for a while, he’ll point out what he sees. But he’ll insist also that you make your own meaning, lead yourself, finally, to your own life.

Link to the Chronicle of Higher Education article (Note: I found the responses more lucid and pointed than the article): http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/02/07/teaching-writing-through-personal-reflection-bad-idea/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en#

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