Walking by Henry Davis Thoreau

This is a short book about the physical, but mostly spiritual benefits of walking.  Mans connection with nature, argues Thoreau, is a part of who we are, allows our creativity and curiousity to flourish, and makes our minds and hearts strong. It is a poem to ecological thinking, living free, and being in the moment.  Of course it is incredibly naive and Thoreau's vision of the world is idyllic, but that disconnect is part of the fun.

It will make you think, and it will generate ideas.  It goes against conventional thinking in our modern society (imagine how far out there it would have been 150 years ago) and challenges core assumptions about how we live, learn, connect, love, and interact with nature and our fellow man.

It is public domain, so you can find it for free here, or in audio book format here.  Perfect for your walks to school.


Here are a few ideas I took away ans how they apply to knowing, learning, and teaching:

Smooth vs Rough
Thoreau develops this idea of smooth hands versus rough hands.  The smooth hands have stayed inside all their lives, protected from the outside.  They are good at gentle things, like music and reading.  The rough hands have spent their time in the great outdoors.  They are dirty, calloused, and hard.  A spirit needs a bit of dirt on it to be free, it needs to experience the pain of injury, and it needs to connect with the earth through touch.

I connected with two threads here.  First, this made me think of hands-on learning, embodied mathematics, and inquiry in general.  Sometimes, we need to physically touch and experience to understood.  Secondly, more metaphorically, I assume the rough hands as the process of ongoing investigation.  Taking risks, trying something new, and failing.  Without our ideas getting dirty or roughed up, how can we grow?

Mind is Free
When left to its own devices, and free to wander (when Thoreau speaks of walking, he means out in nature, but he also means among cities and "civilization"), the mind will go in the direction that it goes. A disciplined person will be able to channel that to something of great importance, or will continually fight with owns mind of where it wants to go.  Ofter then unconscious wants to in one direction, while the conscious wants to go in another.  It is though stillness that we can focus on bringing those two together.

Schools are great at forcing thinking in a certain direction.  This is the standard, this is the outcome, this is the central idea, this is the benchmark, this is what I am assessing, this is what the school values, etc.  What about our students minds roam free, and let them choose what they think?  What is the teachers role in this?

What tools are we bequething our kids?
Thoreau asks this poignant question in the mindset of the 1860's.  He is asking if hoes, spades, rakes, and plows are what we should be handing down to our children.  He argues no.  Instead, he suggests the tools we should be giving them are freedom, wandering minds, curiosity, inquisitiveness  and a love and connection to nature.

Now in the 21st century, the thought remains the same.  Replace hoe with iPad, spade with laptop, or plow with electric train.  Do these tools matter, all of our technology, even a little bit, if our children are curious about the world?

Growing Little Men
Thoreau says that as a society we are obsessed with growing little men, instead of cultivating children.  We try to take the child away from them, and replace it with the man.

I think what we should be doing is letting the childhood last as long as it can, and taking the playful sense of wonder that we experience in children with us into adulthood.

On Public Schools
Henry David Thoreau says, "Public and District schools are preparing young boys for a future they cannot imagine."

Where have you heard that before?  He said that 150 years ago.  I don't know about you, but that thought disappoints me so much.

As Nature Retreats
As humans push nature back and back, and our modernity grows and grows, we lose something.  Not only the trees, the fresh air, the clean water, and the wide open space.  It is not limited to the physical realm.  We lose part of ourselves.  Part of our nature.  Our connection with this planet becomes strenuous when you don't see our selves as part of nature, but rather we see nature as part of us.  We are at the top, or in the middle, or in the most exulted space.

It is humbling to admit that we are just a leaf on a branch in the tree of life.  Humbling, but in my opinion, necessary.  If I admit that, if I say that I want my students to feel that, what does that make me?  Am I brainwashing kids?  Am I forcing values on them?

Teaching as Sauntering

Thoreau develops this idea of different types of walking.  Sauntering, he says, is a type of walking where you have no set destination, rather you walk just to enjoy the walk, and to purposefully let your mind go free.  This reminds me of Jamie McKenzie's sense of purposeful wandering in the inquiry classroom.  The other night on Twitter, somebody said the phrase productive boredom.

This is a metaphor I have been contemplating for a while, though not necessarily the word sauntering.  It is something I need to keep playing with, keep unpicking the entailments, making knots.

I think I'll go for a walk.


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