Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion. Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.
–Henry David Thoreau, Walden
When I was an English teacher, I always enjoyed teaching the unit on Transcendentalism and especially the works of Henry David Thoreau. I pretty much idolized him when I was a teenager, but, admittedly, he kind of lost his appeal the older I got and the more I found out about the truth of his sojourn in the woods. Nevertheless, his words were always amazing to me and still today seem to capture the essence of how I often seem to feel.
For whatever reason, today led me to think of this excerpt. I never quoted it in my conversations with people, but I do recall saying something to the extent of “we need to eliminate all of the noise and just focus on what’s important.” There’s a lot happening in education right now with changes to curriculum, new assessments being piloted, teachers being evaluated using a new system, and the list goes on and on. Everyone connected with schools–students, teachers, parents, administrators–get caught up in the need to “export ice, talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour” and we sometimes forget about why we are here–teaching and learning.
Everything really comes down to those two things. It may seem more complex and that new initiatives or changes are just one more thing, but they are all just layers of the same cake so to speak. What all of us need to do is filter out the distractions and focus on good teaching and learning for all students. If you agree or disagree, let me know. If you have any ideas on how we can simplify, let me know. How can we calm the “chopping sea of civilized life?” Keep the boundaries of this “German Confederacy” from fluctuating? As always, I appreciate your feedback and comments.