Information Age Education Blog

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5 minutes reading time (1071 words)

Thoughts about Henry David Thoreau's Writings about Walden and about Civil Disobedience

"What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?"
--Henry David Thoreau

My wife Sharon Yoder had a fine undergraduate liberal arts education. Those of you who are involved in the field of computers in education will recognize her name as the author or co-author of a great many books. Initially she focused mainly on Logo, but then expanded her interests to a wide variety of other topics. Learn more about her at http://iae-pedia.org/Sharon_Yoder.

Relative to my wife Sharon, my undergraduate education consisted of meeting the minimal requirements outside of the sciences, and focusing on chemistry, mathematics, and physics. I am quite happy with my undergraduate education, but I am frequently somewhat embarrassed by not having Sharon’s knowledge and insights in the liberal arts areas.

Nowadays—with the leisure of being retired—I spend part of my time filling in some of the gaps. Recently I made use of my Kindle to download a free copy of:

Thoreau, H. D. (1854). Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Boston, MA: Ticknor and Fields (original publishers). The version I downloaded also contained Thoreau’s 1849 essay Civil Disobedience.

My wife Sharon indicated that Walden and Civil Disobedience were required in a freshman course she took. However, since I have now read the material more recently than she, perhaps I am more liberally educated than she is in this very small area.

In a early part of Walden I encountered Thoreau’s observation that:

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other.

This statement resonated with something that has been bothering me in my retirement. While working, I regularly encountered and had a chance to converse with a great many people who were actively involved in learning, teaching, writing, and other scholarly activities. Each encounter was an opportunity to learn new things and to try out new ideas that I was developing. Students in my classes and my master’s and doctoral students helped fuel this wonderful environment.

In my retirement, I miss my wide range of students and professional colleagues. I make up for some of this through my regular “Tuesday lunch with the old fogies” and through participation in a limited variety of other activities. I also spend a lot of time reading and writing. This IAE Blog entry you are currently reading provides an example of such activities.

Well, to change the topic before I start crying in my beer (a difficult thing to do since I don’t drink beer), I found Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience particularly interesting. What does a responsible adult do when faced by situations that he or she deems to be wrong? Current government, institutions, and the way many people think and act represent very major barriers to righting some of these wrongs.

In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau wrote about how wrong slavery is. In the United States it took a terribly destructive war to end slavery. Even now, about 150 years after it began, we still feel some of the effects of the Civil War. During my lifetime I have gradually seen and learned about a wide range of ways people currently carry out various forms of civil disobedience in attempts to right what they believe to be wrongs in our world.

Of course, some of these attempts are much less destructive than others. The computer-facilitated Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) give voice to many individuals and groups who seek to bring about changes they believe to be important. In my mind, that is certainly much better than wars and terrorism. If Thoreau were living in today’s world, I wonder what he would write about civil disobedience. I also wonder what he would think of our cell phones, email, social networking systems, the Internet and the Web. Wow! These are powerful change agents available today.

What You Can Do

You know that the message sent is not necessarily the message received. You, for example, have “constructed” a personal meaning to my message given above. My overall intent is to provide you with some information and ideas that you will act upon in a manner that leads to improving our informal and formal educational systems.

So, pause for a few seconds and think about the meaning you have constructed from my message and some possible action that you might take based on that meaning. What occurs to you that you, personally, will try out in your quest to improve our education system?

As a personal example, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I can do to change what I consider to be the misinformed ideas of more testing of students, setting standards that seem unreasonable to me, pushing students into math courses that are far above their current Piagetian developmental level, and so on. 

What do you do as a teacher or a student when you strongly disagree with how curriculum, instruction, and assessment are being implemented in our school systems?

Final Remarks

Spend a bit of time reflecting on what you have just read. How does the information fit in with your current knowledge, beliefs, and activities? How can you make use of the information to help improve our informal and formal educational systems? Who do you know that might benefit from reading this IAE Blog?

The IAE Blog entries tend to have a relatively long "shelf life." However, over time, the references tend to get out of date. You can help your fellow readers and IAE by adding a Comment that includes an up-to-date reference and its URL. Your Comment should include a couple of sentences summarizing the up-to date-information and ideas.

Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications

You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications.

Click here to begin.

Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.

Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.

Here are some examples of publications that might interest you.

An intact human brain is naturally curious and creative. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/an-intact-human-brain-is-naturally-curious-and-creative.html.

Are high schools seriously misleading our students?
See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/are-high-schools-seriously-misleading-our-students.html.

ICT integrated into the discipline content areas.
See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/ict-integrated-into-the-discipline-content-areas.html.

In the United States, one in seven (and well over 20% of children) live in poverty.
See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/in-the-united-states-one-in-seven-and-well-over-20-of-children-live-in-poverty.html.

Optimism and pessimism: Understanding both sides of a possible change.
See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/optimism-and-pessimism-understanding-both-sides-of-a-possible-change.html.

Setting unreasonable standards in student assessment.
See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/setting-unreasonable-standards-in-student-assessment.html.

Think globally, act locally.
See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/think-globally-act-locally.html.



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Comments

David Moursund (website) on Thursday, 13 June 2013 15:40
What can can be done to empower students in our educational system?

Written by Dave Moursund, November 19, 2010.

The question raised in the title of this comment is a difficult and tricky one. I certainly don't want to list possible forms of Civil Disobedience as an approach to answering this question.

Seymour Sarason is one of my favorite authors, and I really appreciate his insights in the following book:

Sarason, Seymour (1990). The predictable failure of educational reform: Can we change course before it's too late. Jossey-Bass.

Quoting from the book:


So, how does one go about increasing the power of students and their teachers? In my mind, here are two key questions:

Are we raising and educating our children in a manner so that they can understand whether they are getting an education that is well designed to prepare them for their future?

Are we raising, educating, and empowering our children in a manner that provides them with the knowledge and skills to can participate in shape their (our) educational system to better fit the needs of current and future children?


Obviously, some home environments and schools do much better than others. But not many schools make a concerted effort to involve students in the design and implementation of curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment. Rather, the system is top down, with much of the “top” being well above the teachers, and still more above the students. This is true even as students gradually increase in maturity and capability, and are reaching the threshold of being adults.

So, one approach to empowering students is to provide them with opportunities to be more directly involved in designing curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Start with those students who are most interested in being involved, and who are showing a level of maturity and respo0nsibility-taking that is consistent with such increased empowerment.

What I am suggesting is schools should be making a far greater effort toward empowering students. I am interested in receiving Comments on examples of where and how this is being done well, and suggestions for how to achieve more wide scale implementation of empowering students.

Written by Dave Moursund, November 19, 2010. The question raised in the title of this comment is a difficult and tricky one. I certainly don't want to list possible forms of Civil Disobedience as an approach to answering this question. Seymour Sarason is one of my favorite authors, and I really appreciate his insights in the following book: Sarason, Seymour (1990). The predictable failure of educational reform: Can we change course before it's too late. Jossey-Bass. Quoting from the book: [quote] So, how does one go about increasing the power of students and their teachers? In my mind, here are two key questions: Are we raising and educating our children in a manner so that they can understand whether they are getting an education that is well designed to prepare them for their future? Are we raising, educating, and empowering our children in a manner that provides them with the knowledge and skills to can participate in shape their (our) educational system to better fit the needs of current and future children? [/quote] Obviously, some home environments and schools do much better than others. But not many schools make a concerted effort to involve students in the design and implementation of curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment. Rather, the system is top down, with much of the “top” being well above the teachers, and still more above the students. This is true even as students gradually increase in maturity and capability, and are reaching the threshold of being adults. So, one approach to empowering students is to provide them with opportunities to be more directly involved in designing curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Start with those students who are most interested in being involved, and who are showing a level of maturity and respo0nsibility-taking that is consistent with such increased empowerment. What I am suggesting is schools should be making a far greater effort toward empowering students. I am interested in receiving Comments on examples of where and how this is being done well, and suggestions for how to achieve more wide scale implementation of empowering students.
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