Posted by: Alex Borders | February 18, 2011

Follow Thoreau


Friday 18th February

Follow Thoreau and take the cell phone challenge!

In the post on February 6th, Boredom: the Cauldron of Creativity about allowing children to experience boredom in order to foster their imaginations, author Nancy Blakey recommended that parents refrain from filling up their children’s schedules with activities; instead, let the kids “hear the call behind boredom” and create their own games and playthings.

William Major, an associate professor of English at Hillyer College at the University of Hartford, has been following a similar track as Blakey’s when he asks his students to give their cell phones to him for five days and to reflect on their experiences without them. Major offers this extra credit assignment in his literature class when the class finishes reading and discussing Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Major says that while it may appear that Thoreau’s most difficult lesson might be to reduce our needs and wants and to “simplify”, the real lesson he teaches is learning to spend time alone. Thoreau wrote, “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. I have never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

For many of Major’s students, as well as for most of us, giving up our cell phones, iPhones, BlackBerries, iPads and other marvels of the technological age is unthinkable. What if something happens, we ask? Suppose my car breaks down or I miss a call from a friend? Major rightly points out that “…there was a time, not long ago, when none of us had cell phones, yet we still traveled hither and yon, we missed friends at parties, and our cars broke down – a lot more frequently than they do now. And when our cars broke down, we figured things out as we went along – you know, practiced a little self-reliance.” Sounds a lot like creativity kicking in when faced with a challenge, doesn’t it?

Waldorf Education asks parents to consciously turn down or turn off the amount of media their children see – whether it’s on the computer or on TV. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s Sesame Street or Jersey Shore you’re tuned to; turn it off and let the kids “hear the call” behind the quiet. Adults need that quiet as well. We don’t necessarily need the stimulation of being in touch with other people 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We can apply the Waldorf idea to our own lives by limiting how much time we spend on the phone, texting, or cruising the Internet. Of the students in William Major’s class who gave up their phones, several mentioned noticing the campus, its trees and other people for the first time. What can you see if you’re not hunched over sending a text message?

So, here’s the challenge: Mid-winter break is next week and school is closed. Granted, that doesn’t mean that parents get the week off for a vacation but, even if you have to work or go to school, leave your cell phone at home for a day. Take the train without your iPod or drive without the radio. Or, if you’re up to it, stay at home without turning on the TV, radio, computer, or talking on the phone. See what comes up in your mind and pay attention to how you feel. Something will come from the quiet space you’ve created for yourself. Make room for it and let yourself grow as a person.

~ Brenda Ridley

Brenda Ridley is the administrator at The Waldorf School of Philadelphia. William Major’s article, “Thoreau’s Cell Phone Experiment”, referred to in this essay, appeared in the online edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education on January 16, 2011.

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