When I was a first-year student in college, I faced a fork in the road. While I had started with the intention of being a pre-med major, I found my science classes to be boring. They seemed to all be focused on rote memorization which was stultifying to me. The classes which excited me were my History classes. I loved reading and writing essays, thinking about ideas, conceptualizing the past.
My internal conflict was increased my second year of college when I studied abroad in Vienna, Austria for a semester. My passion for art, music, and history was fueled even more through travel and exploration. When I returned from Europe, I confided my struggle to my advisor, who was a Historian. While I had been encouraged to pursue medicine as a potentially lucrative career, I did not feel any love for that path. He wisely handed me a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 essay “Life Without Principle.”
I already was a fan of Thoreau, and this selection undoubtedly changed the direction of my life. I was moved by his directive to earn one’s living “by loving.” I knew that medicine was not a reflection of my authentic self, but I LOVED history. And so it was History that I pursued. This path led me to transfer colleges, study abroad in England, travel to Africa, earn a doctorate, write several books, and ultimately be a writer/educator in the NYC area. All of these choices have made my heart sing.
I was reminded of “Life Without Principle” this semester in the introduction to the Humanities course that I teach to first-year engineering students at Stevens Institute. I had heard several of them making comments about feeling that college was like a boot camp as they were herded through classes aimed at directing them to lucrative careers. I wanted to broaden their horizons so I created a class session around Thoreau’s essay in the hopes of reminding them not to forget about their life’s happiness.
I started the class by reading the quote below and asked them to guess when it was written. Several of them noted that it sounded timeless and that, except for some of the word choices, it could have been written in the twenty-first century.
“Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives. This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. … I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”
We then discussed a few other passages from the essay, and they did some self reflective stream of consciousness writing. When it came time to share in small groups, the results were very interesting. Several students admitted they would like to teach if their career path was not concerned with money. A couple of students expressed a desire to travel, but said they had never looked into it because their academic loads were so heavy. One student proclaimed that he’d love to just leave everything behind and travel the world for some time. A number of students noted that they felt pressure from their families to make a lot of money so they could take care of their parents in the future.
I hope that reflecting on Thoreau gave them some new perspectives to consider. In these same classes, I recently sent them on a brief nature walk (without their phones or laptops!) to enjoy the springtime beauty that is blanketing the campus right now. A number of students admitted that they rarely take a break and just enjoy the out of doors without technology. Maybe someday soon or someday long in the future, they will remember enjoying nature and Thoreau’s words, and will take some time for their own personal joys. The art of self reflection and cultivating inner happiness is one of the most important lessons, I can share with my students, just as my advisor did over twenty years ago with me. Thank you, Sachem! Thank you, Thoreau!
“… I might pursue some path, however solitary and narrow and crooked, in which I could walk with love and reverence. Wherever a man separates from the multitude, and goes his own way in this mood, there is indeed a fork in the road, though ordinary travelers may see only a gap in the paling. His solitary path across lots will turn out to be the higher way of the two.”