Why Every College Student Should Read Thoreau's "Walden"

Why Every College Student Should Read Thoreau's "Walden"

How questioning everything can help you answer daunting life questions.
546
views

College is all about choices.

Unfortunately, the choices we’re tasked with making throughout these four years can often feel overwhelming or daunting in scope. The simple question: “What major should I choose?” naturally encourages the thought: “Which career path should I go down?” which spirals into: “Who do I want to become?” and culminates with the nigh unsolvable philosophical quandary: “What do I hope to get out of life?”

Coming up with the right answers seems to require an almost inhuman amount of foresight for a young adult. Whether we like it or not, college, as the final rung on the educational ladder, is the time in our life that society has designated for us to confront these questions.

Uncoincidentally, it’s also a point where society, with all its constructs and rules, seems to impress itself most heavily onto our choices. Societal opinion leaks into our decision-making process daily. We’re told what we need out of life. We’re told what is respectable and what isn’t. We’re essentially told how we should live, and it’s hard to feel like it’s possible to live any other way.

We may lock ourselves down a pre-med track even if we lack the temperament for it because that’s what mother wants us to do, or that’s what we’re told will make us successful or garner respect.

That’s why it’s especially important now, against a backdrop of increasing social pressure, to step back and read the most anti-society piece of literature ever written: Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.”

It exudes such an absurd level of angst that it puts Kurt Cobain’s raspy baritone to shame. In fact, it's essentially Good Charlotte’s classic pop-punk hit “The Anthem” except 300 pages in length and eloquent in prose.

Although Thoreau — a 19th century American Transcendentalist and Romanticist — lived in an age quite unlike ours, his work still holds up in relatability and relevance. Like us, Thoreau reached a point in his life where he was confronted with daunting choices and questions. However, he realized that society was the only thing forcing him to confront those choices in the first place.

Thoreau’s response to this realization was “Walden,” a two-week experiment in which he lived off in the woods. Through his writings, Thoreau offers an incredibly revealing look at society – from the outside perspective in. He puts nearly every social construct under the microscope – even some of our most deeply rooted – tears them apart and flips them on its head.

The rich are poor. The young are wiser than the old. Good is bad.

He observes his fellow townsmen, toiling in their respective occupations, and writes:

“Men labor under a mistake… most men are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them… He has no time to be anything but a machine.”

We’ve chosen to live as society dictates, or as Thoreau puts it, “the common mode of living” because we don’t think that there is any choice left. “Walden” tells us that there is always another choice. It highlights the absurdity of society, putting our own lives into perspective and forcing us to question our own place in the world. In the process, Thoreau calls to mind simple truths, seemingly obvious, but eminently revealing nonetheless.

You might be thinking, "How does living in the woods and sticking the finger to society help me resolve any of the pressing life questions I face as a college student?"

Now, I don’t think everyone should escape their problems and go on a lifelong camping trip in the woods. But I do think that it’s important to mentally detach ourselves from social convention every once in a while, take a deep breath, and begin questioning everything around us. As Thoreau said himself:

“No way of thinking or doing, however ancient can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow…”

In doing so, we can better identify which of our choices are being motivated by public opinion rather than what truly matters—our own personal reflection. Perhaps only then can we make the decisions that are right for us.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Cover Image Credit: Pexels

Popular Right Now

11 Things Psychology Majors Hear That Drive Them Crazy

No pun intended.
4428
views

We've all been there. You're talking to a new acquaintance, or a friend of your parents, or whoever. And then, you get the dreaded question.

"So what are you studying in school?"

Cue the instant regret of picking Psychology as your major, solely for the fact that you are 99.9% likely to receive one of the slightly comical, slightly cliche, slightly annoying phrases listed below. Don't worry though, I've included some responses for you to use next time this comes up in conversation. Because it will.

Quick side note, these are all real-life remarks that I've gotten when I told people I was a psych major.

Here we go.

1. So are you, like, analyzing me right now?


Well, I wasn't. But yeah. Now I am.

2. Ugh so jealous! You picked the easy major.


"Lol" is all I have to say to this one. I'm gonna go write my 15-page paper on cognitive impairment. You have fun with your five college algebra problems, though!

3. So can you tell me what you think is wrong with me? *Shares entire life story*


Don't get me wrong; I love listening and helping people get through hard times. But we can save the story about how one time that one friend said that one slightly rude comment to you for later.

4. Well, s**t, I have to be careful what I say around you.


Relax, pal. I couldn't diagnose and/or institutionalize you even if I wanted to.

5. OMG! I have the perfect first client for you! *Proceeds to vent about ex-boyfriend or girlfriend*


Possible good response: simply nod your head the entire time, while actually secretly thinking about the Ben and Jerry's carton you're going to go home and demolish after this conversation ends.

6. So you must kind of be like, secretly insane or something to be into Psychology.


Option one: try and hide that you're offended. Option two: just go with it, throw a full-blown tantrum, and scare off this individual, thereby ending this painful conversation.

7. Oh. So you want to be a shrink?


First off, please. Stop. Calling. Therapists. Shrinks. Second, that's not a psych major's one and only job option.

8. You know you have to go to grad school if you ever want a job in Psychology.


Not completely true, for the record. But I am fully aware that I may have to spend up to seven more years of my life in school. Thanks for the friendly reminder.

9. So you... want to work with like... psychopaths?


Let's get serious and completely not-sarcastic for a second. First off, I take personal offense to this one. Having a mental illness does not classify you as a psycho, or not normal, or not deserving of being treated just like anyone else on the planet. Please stop using a handful of umbrella terms to label millions of wonderful individuals. It's not cool and not appreciated.

10. So can you, like, read my mind?


It actually might be fun to say yes to this one. Try it out and see what happens. Get back to me.

11. You must be a really emotional person to want to work in Psychology.


Psychology is more than about feeling happy, or sad, or angry. Psychology is about understanding the most complex thing to ever happen to us: our brain. How it works the way it does, why it works the way it does, and how we can better understand and communicate with this incredibly mysterious, incredibly vast organ in our tiny little skull. That's what psychology is.

So keep your head up, psychology majors, and don't let anyone discourage you about choosing, what is in my opinion, the coolest career field out there. The world needs more people like us.

Cover Image Credit: Pexels

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

Short Stories On Odyssey: Roses

What's worth more than red roses?

449
views

Five years old and a bouquet of roses rested in her hands. The audience-- clapped away her performance, giving her a standing ovation. She's smiling then because everything made sense, her happiness as bright as the roses she held in her hands.

Fifteen now, and a pile of papers rested on her desk. The teachers all smiled when she walked down the aisle and gave them her presentation. She was content then but oh so stressed, but her parents happy she had an A as a grade, not red on her chest.

Eighteen now and a trail of tears followed her to the door. Partying, and doing some wild things, she just didn't know who she was. She's crying now, doesn't know anymore, slamming her fists into walls, pricking her fingers on roses' thorns.

Twenty-one and a bundle of bills were grasped in her hands. All the men-- clapped and roared as she sold her soul, to the pole, for a dance. She's frowning now because everything went wrong, but she has to stay strong, for rich green money, is worth more than red roses.

Related Content

Facebook Comments