Transcendental Higher Learning: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Idea of Liberal Arts Open Access

Johnson, Joseph Michael (2015)

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Henry Thoreau's philosophy of education was more actively political than scholars have previously recognized. Transcendental Higher Learning begins by telling the story of Thoreau's dramatic reading of poetry and ancient classics at the radical abolitionist John Brown's memorial service in Concord on December 2, 1859. I return to this moment, which I interpret as the culmination of Thoreau's lifelong political engagement with higher learning, in chapter four. Thoreau's theory of books and reading was grounded in the antebellum classical college and looked forward, at the same time, to progressive theories of liberal arts that continue to shape the way we talk about higher education today. Chapter one shows how Emerson's view of the American scholar grew out of the romantic roots of the nineteenth-century classical college as well. Thoreau's theory of higher learning emerged as a variety of Harvard new humanism, filtered through Emerson and Harvard classicists like Cornelius Conway Felton, Thoreau's undergraduate professor of Greek. Chapters two and three argue that the only two book-length works Thoreau published in his lifetime, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854), can be interpreted as an extension of Thoreau's undergraduate course of classical studies. Thoreau's educational vision evolved throughout his major works. He started with a conception of books and learning as a form of antimaterialism, a pursuit that has the power to challenge the reign of antebellum business and industrial society. Toward the end of his life, after the publication of A Week and Walden, Thoreau developed a stronger sense of liberal arts education as a vehicle for literary and civil disobedience. In 1859, Thoreau saw higher learning not as a private or passive pursuit but as a public and active political performance. Transcendental Higher Learning argues that Thoreau's mature view of education, as he practiced it at John Brown's memorial service in Concord on December 2, 1859, can help us better understand transcendentalist as an education movement. Thoreau's mature philosophy of higher learning as a progressive countercultural activity can help reanimate our own theory and practice of liberal arts in the twenty-first century as well.

Table of Contents


Half-Way to Thermopylae 1


Ancient Classics and the American Scholar 41


Reading as Imaginative Travel in A Week 83


Heroic Reading in Walden 126


Thoreau's Universal Liturgy 152


Transcendental Higher Learning for the Twenty-First Century 205


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