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, 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.


Dear Editor:

I am tremendously impressed by Mr. Rochon's intellectual leadership in his reflections on Thoreau's Walden in this issue of the IC View.

I am however disappointed that the photos on the latest IC View omit Ithaca College's greatest asset: its architecture and its setting on one of the most beautiful lakes in America. I literally chose to attend Ithaca over two other schools on the basis of its (then) new campus and that campus's spectacular view of Lake Cayuga.

Just as Yale cannot be thought of by its alumni without visions of its gothic and modern architecture, so too Ithaca cannot be thought of by its alumni without
visions of the campus and its breathtaking view. This is a major omission.

Paul D. Keane

B.A. '68
M.Ed., (Kent State University '72)
M. Div., (Yale University '80)
M.A., (Middlebury College '97)

How about getting the Radio/TV Department to set up a website that allows alumni to digitally view the Lake 2/7/35 LIVE.

You know Cayuga has hundreds of different colors, textures and shimmerings.

I have been working on my unpublished memoir for too long to remember, so it was thrilling to be awakened by your “corner” of inspiration relative to one of my favorite writers and human beings.

In response to your request for us to “reencounter Thoreau’s reflections,” I offer my own which were written as I visited Walden’s Pond during, I think, one of my returns to IC for a reunion. Here then, is what I wrote a number of years ago:

As a child I had been an idealist before knowing its meaning. I had only to grow up to find my utopia and a society that spurned bullies. In time, I, too, would find my Walden’s Pond.
Later in life, I went to Concord, Massachusetts to visit Thoreau’s cherished place of discovery and experimentation.
“Would that I could be as free as you. The serenity of life surrounds and caresses me as I sense your presence.”
I ran as I approached the site of his cabin, and then walked reverently around the spot where he had lived. The tranquility of a magnificent summer day evoked goodness. I yearned to capture it in my memory and feast forever on its sublimity. Where did he sit to watch and dream and write? I had to leave; I had to say good-bye to an eminent trace of Colonial America.
“I apologize for my urgency – the need was never so with you.”
I walked with measured strides as I returned to the parking lot. My head was bowed as I observed the path upon which he would have trod. I felt disinclined to raise my head to acknowledge a young couple who passed me on the way.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I had not lived.
Henry D. Thoreau

Perhaps, Mr. President, this encounter will entice me to become a published author.

Nice speaking to you,

Lt. Col. Jerry Bearce ’58, MEd, MA
201 Bryant Road
Pensacola, FL 32507