My fourth-grader’s teacher is retiring at the end of this school year and on Friday we helped organize and attended a party in her honor. We taped banners, forty-four years of class photographs, poems, paintings and drawings to the walls in the school gymnasium, set up tables and chairs, hooked up the sound system and organized the potluck line. The class photos were revealing. Every face was white in the first decade of pictures, while my son’s class is overwhelmingly Asian, mostly Chinese. I spent much of the party talking about movies and Bolshevism with a computer engineer from Sri Lanka whose daughter is in my son’s class.
The retiree started teaching in California in the fall of 1966, when I entered the ninth grade. My son likes and respects her despite constant homework laments. In ten months he’s progressed from claiming to hate math to reading trigonometry texts for recreation. His teacher impresses me as a rare serious person with a robust sense of humor. Her deportment is teacherly. Everything is a potential lesson and she seems unconcerned with being liked, though she is – essential qualities for effective teaching.
Her retirement reminded me that Thoreau had a truncated career as a teacher in the formal sense. In the fall of 1835 while enrolled at Harvard he taught seventy students in Canton, south of Boston. We know little about the experience except that he was hired by a minister, Orestes Brownson, who was soon to number among the best-known of the transcendentalist crackpots.
After graduating from Harvard in the summer of 1837, Thoreau returned to Concord and was hired as a teacher at the Center School. He apparently ran a loose ship and was advised by a member of the school committee to more liberally employ corporal punishment. The school didn’t have the traditional strip of cowhide for flogging, so Thoreau used a ferule on six students and submitted his resignation that evening. While looking for another teaching job he wrote to Brownson on Dec. 30, 1837:
“I have even been disposed to regard the cowhide as a nonconductor. Methinks that, unlike the electric wire, not a single spark of truth is ever transmitted through its agency to the slumbering intellect it would address.”
Thoreau started his own school in June 1838. He and four students met in the family home. In less than a year his older brother John joined him as a second teacher and they rented the Concord Academy building, where Thoreau had studied. John’s failing health caused the brothers to close the school in April 1841, though I suspect Henry's high-mindedness doomed the enterprise from the start. Thoreau tutored Emerson’s nephew for several months in 1843 but was never again a classroom teacher.
Like Samuel Johnson, Thoreau taught formally only when young but both of them remained essentially teachers as writers. Their instinct to instruct was powerful. Neither was merely an entertainer though both were immensely entertaining. About the efficacy of formal education Thoreau remained skeptical. In the 1837 letter to Brownson quoted above, he writes:
“I would make education a pleasant thing both to the teacher and the scholar. This discipline, which we allow to be the end of life, should not be one thing in the schoolroom, and another in the street. We should seek to be fellow students with the pupil, and should learn of, as well as with him, if we would be most helpful to him.”
The notion of ceaseless education, of living as learning, is among his favorite themes. He writes in his journal on Feb. 19, 1841:
“A truly good book attracts very little favor to itself. It is so true that it teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint….What I began by reading I must finish by acting.”
And on Dec. 31, 1859:
"How vain it is to teach youth, or anybody, truths! They can only learn them after their own fashion, and when they get ready. I do not mean by this to condemn our system of education, but to show what it amounts to. A hundred boys at college are drilled in physics and metaphysics, languages, etc. There may be one or two in each hundred, prematurely old perchance, who approaches the subject from a similar point of view of his teachers, but as for the rest, and the most promising, it is like agricultural chemistry to so many Indians. They get a valuable drilling, it may be, but they do not learn what you profess to teach. They at most only learn where the arsenal is, in case they should ever want to use any of its weapons.”