Thoreau and free thought

By Katie McKenna

After reading “Walden” in my junior year of high school, Henry David Thoreau’s words stuck with me the way your fingers stick after eating a candy cane. You’re glad you had the experience, but you’re very conscious of just how sticky you are. I listened as my classmates held the inevitable criticism: “He was like, 20 feet from town! He wasn’t even really camping out!”

Courtesy natalee929/Flickr

I don’t think that Thoreau’s proximity to town made his ideas any less legitimate. Who says that we all need to be just like Alexander Supertramp? Thoreau didn’t want to pay taxes, so he didn’t pay taxes. He spent a night in jail. Isn’t that more than the rest of us have done?

My dad grew up sandwiched between Walden Street and Thoreau Street in Concord, and my grandmother, who we visited frequently, still lives there. I’d never been to Walden Pond until about a month ago because I’d always just thought of it as the place that my dad used to take swimming lessons. Finally, I went to check it out with my dad, just to see what had changed since his boyhood.

It’s funny visiting a tourist attraction with a native of the area. The whole time my dad kept saying, “tourists, tourists everywhere.” The number of people fascinated by a mere pond with a cute path around it on a warm fall day astounded me.

Along that path, there were regularly spaced signs that read: “Please stay on the trails” and “Violators are subject to fines” in big letters. As my dad and I mocked the irony of these signs, I noticed something: no one else seemed to think twice about it.

People walked around, as my dad put it, “walled in” between wires, as if they were “herded sheep.” It was Thoreau that said, “All good things are wild and free,” yet here was everyone coming to worship that very concept, staying within a very defined and restricted path.

The problem is that everyone seems to enjoy the idea, but no one wants to actually face the reality of it. Teachers always encouraged me to speak my mind, but when I criticized the book they’d chosen for us to read, or suggested we play badminton in gym, or argued with a teacher in a class debate against their views, I was often criticized for such behavior. They should say “Speak your mind – as long as I agree with it what is you have to say,” because that’s what most people really mean.

We all glorify the idea of standing up for our own beliefs, but it can be an ugly reality. Standing up for one’s beliefs is always socially acceptable and admired, unless those beliefs contradict the popular opinion.

I’m only a sophomore at UMass, but I’ve already seen my fair share of protests. There were riots when US troops found Osama Bin Laden. There has been an entire Occupy UMass movement in support of Occupy Wall Street. Students protested when University Health Services announced changes. Students protested at a recent talk on Global Capitalism. Throughout history we see that college students in particular love to protest. The cause for protesting could be a major issue like healthcare. It could be because someone stepped left when we wanted them to step right. When we don’t agree, we speak up and many believe that that’s a good idea.

People often tell me to “Stop over-thinking and just go!” or to “Stop asking so many questions” or to “Go with the flow of things,” but how is one supposed to go with the flow of things when that same flow might not be in the right direction?

In a somewhat liberal environment, you could tell people that you are pro-life and be endlessly criticized, yet it would be offensive for you to say anything against the pro-choice idea. It’s not that we have to take on one another’s views, it’s that we have to accept the fact that others have different views than we do and that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to think. We don’t want a society of herded sheep, but rather, one where things are wild and free.

Katie McKenna is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]