Henry David Thoreau is best known for his writing as an American transcendentalist. However, Thoreau’s contribution to society reaches beyond this label. In addition to his life as an author, Henry David Thoreau was a naturalist, abolitionist, pacifist, poet, philosopher, individualist, educator, and scholar. Thoreau is also considered by many as an influential force behind movements such as environmentalism, ecology, and anarchism.
Born David Henry Thoreau in 1817, Thoreau rearranged his name upon graduation in 1837 from Harvard College, where he studied science, philosophy, and mathematics. While on a break from his undergraduate work in 1835, Thoreau took his first job as a teacher in Canton, Massachusetts. After graduating, Thoreau accepted his first faculty position at the Concord Academy in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. Upon his dismissal for failure to comply with the school’s corporal punishment policy, Thoreau opened and operated a grammar school in Concord with his brother John from 1838–1841. When his school closed because of his brother’s death, Thoreau continued to work as a tutor for the extended family of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Thoreau met Emerson and joined his circle of friends in the late 1830s. With Emerson’s motivation, Thoreau’s first essay was published in 1842. Emerson’s tutelage and Thoreau’s writing continued throughout the years between Thoreau’s graduation from Harvard until 1845, when Thoreau moved into the forest at Walden Pond to write what would later become his most notable work—Walden, or A Life in the Woods—written from 1845–1847 and published in 1854. Throughout his remaining years, Thoreau would continue to read and write on topics ranging from nature to politics. His most famous essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (1849), was written in response to the night he spent in jail for refusal to pay delinquent taxes as a way to show his opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War.
Overall, Thoreau made significant contributions to many fields, including education. His life and work have influenced many future generations of writers, scholars, philosophers, educators, and leaders. His most well-known quote and critique of traditional education comes from his own journal: “What does education often do?—It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free meandering brook.” Until his death in 1862, Thoreau continued to philosophize and write about alternatives to what he saw as flawed and unjust systems.
- Bickman, M. (Ed.). (1999). Uncommon learning: Henry David Thoreau on education. Boston: Mariner.
- Bode, C. (Ed.). (1977). The portable Thoreau. New York: Penguin.
- Walden Woods Project Thoreau Institute, Writings: http://www.walden.org/institute/thoreau/writings/ Writings.htm
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