Published in California English Quarterly, September 2001
Education, Reform and Transcendentalism
By Mark Storer
While words like “accountability” and “standards” fetter our profession with false notions of how to educate children, we sink further into a morass of educational reform, which does nothing more than provide a feckless path down the road to mediocrity. But I have accepted this. This is the political reality and if I am to be a true professional, I must find ways to provide quality education to my students while politicians look for new ways to raise polling data.
At its core, the Standards movement is a good thing. I have read through the California State English Standards and I found nothing there that is disagreeable, redundant or pointless. I sat pondering this while trying to find meaningful ways to teach the Transcendentalists to my students. I wanted to apply these standards directly to my lesson to show students and even their parents that this is what teachers do each day. I was in search of a way to make this important part of American culture come alive not only because it is important on such assessments as the Stanford 9 and SAT, but also because it encompasses so much of what America as an idea stands for. To understand, to digest Transcendentalism, is to capture the American psyche from before the Civil War on. California English Standard 3.2 under Reading dictates that students should be able to, “Compare and contrast the presentation of a similar theme or topic across genres to explain how the selection of genre shapes the theme or topic.” I sat looking at this particular Standard for a long time. This is the one that would shape the assignment. The Transcendental movement in America is so important precisely because it crosses genres. It is philosophy, religion, literature and history all wrapped up in one. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the two men given the most credit for the movement, gave voice to the yearning of the soul and gave it a place to rest, take ease and be at peace in a time of stifling conformity both philosophically and religiously. This is where I chose to begin my lesson. Students were studying the Civil War in their history classes and by learning the writings of Emerson and Thoreau and many others, they would begin to see more than just generals and politicians.
Teaching the Transcendentalists in a cold, antiseptic way would be antithetical to the admonishments of Emerson and Thoreau. Both believed in trusting experience and intuition and both believed optimistically in the capabilities of human beings. Reading books by modern day authors like Annie Dillard, David Guterson, Norman Maclean, Edward Abbey and Charles Frasier, students see Transcendentalism in the late 20th century and how it has blossomed into much more than just a literary movement, but also a way of life. The first part of the unit, after reading selected texts by Emerson and Thoreau, is for students to select a book by one of the aforementioned authors. Using literature circles, students read Snow Falling on Cedars by Guterson, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Desert Solitaire by Abbey, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, Cold Mountain by Charles Frasier and Guterson’s East Of The Mountains. Some students even chose to read the entire text of Thoreau’s Walden that is only excerpted in their textbooks. This component of the unit asked students to read outside of class and their literature circles were responsible for keeping all group members on task. The responsibility of each group was to seek important Transcendental themes in their books and be ready to present and discuss them and their correlation to the earlier writings of their counterparts. I ran into stumbling blocks here because I originally only allowed about four days for this task after the books had been read. I had to extend it by another week as I saw students truly working on the project, but simply not having enough time to finish tasks.
Standard 3.12 under Reading states, that students should be able to “analyze the way in which a work of literature is related to the themes and issues of a historical period.” In this way, students gain a broader understanding of work as it relates to the lives of those doing the writing. The Transcendentalists were the first abolitionists. Their tracts on the subject were at the heart of New England’s rabid abolitionist movement, which ultimately persuaded Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Further, Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on Civil Disobedience was written in direct response to the Mexican-American War. It survived the generations to be adapted by Mohandas Ghandi in his struggle for Indian sovereignty and Martin Luther King Jr. in his leading the struggle for Civil Rights in America. As students read selections from Civil Disobedience, they see its ghost in their history classes as the great slavery debate is put before them while studying the Civil War. While presenting Transcendentalism as a philosophy, students also discuss its practical, historical applications.
The Standards section on Speaking Applications is extensive and specific in what students should know. Some of what it dictates is, “Deliver expository presentations: a) Marshal evidence in support of a thesis and related claims, including information on all relevant perspectives. b) Convey information and ideas from primary and secondary sources accurately and coherently.” In this same sub-category is letter “d” which states: “Include visual aids by employing appropriate technology to organize and display information…” A presentation that culls together components from outside reading sources, in-class texts, interviews and discussion with other students and staff and includes a Power Point or computer generated overhead visual aid, allows students to get beyond the musty pages and force Transcendentalism to become part of their world.
Speaking Applications Standard 2.5 reads, “Deliver persuasive arguments (including evaluation and analysis of problems and solutions and causes and effects).” Student presentations, in order to be truly transcendental in their own right, had to take modern day problems and issues and view them through the lens of Transcendentalism. How would Emerson or Thoreau see a presidential scandal? Would they see the Internet as valuable and important? What would Transcendentalists think of the problems facing the Mid-East? This is the final component to the unit. Once students have discussed cogent precepts of this philosophy, its history and its current adherents, they must then apply the ideas they have shared to modern day issues and present a reasonable and detailed discussion about how it would be viewed by Emerson, Thoreau, et. Al. The culmination of their work would be not only a theoretical understanding, but also a practical and working one of the Transcendental ideas. In a thesis and research driven oral report, students capture the tenets, history, proponents, practical applications and even future of Transcendentalism.
In their first experience with this after reading Emerson’s essay, The American Scholar, I asked them which candidate in this election year they thought Transcendentalists would choose. I was convinced I would get Ralph Nader as an answer, or possibly Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate. Instead, hands shot up almost immediately and the answer given was, “it wouldn’t matter to Emerson because he didn’t believe in societal leadership.” The point had been made.
This is only one unit in a long school year and it only makes a difference if the students respond to it. So far, my results are positive with strong group performances that indicate understanding and even empathy with the Transcendentalists. Perhaps while waging political battles, we must also prepare our students to wage them. None of us wants to see our curriculum narrowed down to a few tests. If we show students, parents and our communities that what we are teaching is not only Standards based, but critical for forming independent, thinking citizens of a free republic, we will have a chance at real reform. These citizens will be judged and rewarded far more for their ability to apply practical and intelligent ideas to new situations than on how quickly they can formulate answers to theoretical questions.