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Editor’s Desk: How Thoreau would critique Brandeis

Published: March 16, 2012
Section: Opinions, Top Stories


Too often with hectic schedules and exam periods, college students lose sight of why we come to college, what we hope to achieve here and how we plan to learn.

The book that teaches us about politics, the professor that teaches us how to analyze political theory—these relations are commonplace at American universities. What is rare and missing in higher education is wisdom that teaches students not how to study but how to live.

Inside a Lown classroom on a Tuesday afternoon last month, Professor Tim McCarty (POL) led a discussion about how Henry David Thoreau begins his masterpiece “Walden” by explaining the great tragedy of life: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

When the professor asked how many students had memorized their grade point average, nearly everyone in the room raised their hand. Just weeks earlier, when he asked how many students knew the mayor of Waltham, no one did.

It was an alarming contrast. Should Brandeis students invest interest in the government of Waltham and the mayor who runs it, they will find that Jeannette McCarthy, whose direct phone number is listed online, actually wants to speak with students. After an hour interview with The Hoot last year, she spent 30 minutes asking for advice on how to transform this community’s economy. Politics aside, students ought to know who she is and communicate with her. It will not earn us points of recognition, but it will provide us with perspective, participation and appreciation for the community in which we live.

People—not GPAs—achieve goals. Memorizing our GPA, spending winter break performing hours of community service to bolster our resumes or stressing about what our peers think of us—such behaviors are acts of desperation, McCarty explained.

There is nothing wrong with academic ambition and excellence. But there is a fundamental difference between writing a paper to earn points for your grade average versus attempting to work through a solution to a problem in your mind and then communicate it to someone else. One can study for an exam by memorizing facts, names and data or one can search creatively for patterns of behavior and thought.

In his inaugural address, President Lawrence defended the value of a liberal arts education, explaining that “the ability to turn information into knowledge, the ability to analyze closely, the ability to solve problems and the ability to communicate” will always prove useful in the work place. He warned of the dangers of desperation—only focusing on what we need to do.

The liberal arts critic views history as an impractical major because it will not lead to a secure job after graduation. But the value of studying history cannot be measured in dollars. It is about learning to recognize what has happened, observe what is happening and envision what ought to happen next.

The liberal arts critic views politics as a theoretical major taught by academics lacking political experience. Yet the value of political theory is ultimately that it teaches us to study the process of compromise.

The journalism critic argues it is a dying industry, useless to teach students searching for a job. But journalism is not only about nut graphs, interview techniques and writing on deadline. It is also about searching for complicated answers to uncomfortable questions, trying to understand the flurry of competing thoughts in your head and communicating what you think to others.

The transition from knowledge and critical thinking skills to career success will occur for most of us. But for a select few, a college experience filled with Thoreau’s “wisdom” could lead to a new purpose and meaning in our lives.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life … and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear,” Thoreau wrote. He challenged us to discover the joy of living, to spend time satisfying ourselves rather than waste it pleasing others.

We can choose to read Thoreau and study it as 19th-century political philosophy. Or, we can learn to adapt its lessons to our lives here at Brandeis.