President's Corner: Recasting Thoreau
“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Walden has inspired, challenged, and confounded millions of readers in the 156 years since its first printing. Having been chosen as the First-Year Reading selection for our freshman class of 2014, I hope it will do the same for our incoming students.
Walden was controversial at the time of its publication. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier complained that Thoreau’s emphasis on living with few material goods meant he was advocating that we lower ourselves “to the level of the wood-chuck.” At Thoreau’s funeral, Ralph Waldo Emerson complained, “I cannot help counting it a fault in [Thoreau] that he had no ambition.”
As our lives have continued to become complexly interdependent, Thoreau has come to be seen in a kinder light. The edition of Walden chosen for the freshman class contains a preface written by the environmentalist Bill McKibben, who spoke at Ithaca College in 2004 as part of the C.P. Snow Lecture Series. McKibben takes particular note of Thoreau’s two most important questions: “How much is enough?” and “How do I know what I want”?
These questions have often been cast as the foundation of environmental awareness and commitment to sustainability, and that is certainly one valuable dimension of the book. But Walden also contains reflections on the nature of progress and development, both in one’s own life and in society as a whole.It spurs us to think about the role of challenge — and failure — in our lives, the importance of self-reliance, and the nature of our interdependence with others.
The very act of reading the book will represent a departure of habit for many of our students. This is a book of thoughts and reflections; it is neither character-driven nor plot-driven. What is important is not what happens, but instead, what thoughts the book stimulates in the reader. At a time when reading risks becoming synonymous with skimming through paragraphs and getting to the bottom of things as quickly as possible, Walden asks the reader to slow down, be patient, and open the mind to counterintuitive thinking. One can benefit by opening to any page, reading a few paragraphs, and then closing the book and thinking about them.
Though you may well have read Walden at some point in the past, now would be a great opportunity for you to pick up a copy and look at it again. Walden is one of those books that seems different at each encounter — reading it is a way of holding up a mirror to one’s life and asking the kinds of questions that we should all ask ourselves from time to time. It is my hope that alumni, parents of current students, and others who read ICView will also take this opportunity to encounter, or reencounter, Thoreau’s reflections.
For the first time this year, Ithaca College faculty, staff, and peer mentors will take advantage of the social networking opportunities created by the IC Peers website to suggest questions and engage with student thinking about the book during the course of the summer. I would like to offer the same opportunity to readers of ICView. As I noted above, it is not necessary to commit to reading the entire work. Just pick a chapter or a few pages that interest you. Read Thoreau’s thoughts and think about how they dovetail (or not) with your own experience in life. If you are so moved, post a comment at ithaca.edu/icview/blogs, or go to the page and see what comments others have offered. I’d love to read your thoughts and have the opportunity to offer some of my own in dialogue with you.
As the class of 2014 embarks on the next major phase of their lives, Walden will prove to be a provocative spur to contemplation and discussion. I look forward to joining in that discussion with as many members of the IC community as possible.