Monday, November 30, 2009


Today I taught Henry Thoreau's "Life Without Principles" to my sophomore college English students and the response was very interesting. For those who haven't read it or aren't interested in finding it to read, the premise of the essay is that we make the choices of how we spend our lives --- for things or for values. Thoreau argues that we should make a life and not just a living. He states that we should never compromise our values for stuff. What a timely essay to read right after Thanksgiving, don't you think? Cunning plan, wasn't it?

The first thing asked of each class was how many folks had a cell phone. Everyone raised their hand. They wrote down the total cost for their service and then had to divide it by their hourly wage. Or, if they didn't work, they were to use the state minimum wage. Then, they had to do the same with their car, insurance, and gasoline. There were a lot of gasps!

Next, they wrote down how much time they spend per week in class and multiplied it the same way, by the hourly wage, and then times four for the entire month.

Now, I posed, the first total figure is a debit. You spend it and never get anything back for it. When you use it, it is gone. Now, look at the education column; it is a credit. I asked: Does it go away when you are done? Which is the better value? More gasps.

Lastly, they had to write a journal entry of how they would rather spend their time instead of working for things. There was a lot of silence and thinking going on; I had to wonder how many went home to share this new concept with their parents.

Before you think I am brilliant, let me share that I did it, too. I wrote down my numbers and was quite surprised that, confidentially, I am making some pretty suspect choices myself. In fact, I had a hard talk with myself on the way home. I hope I was listening!

While the students may not remember a lot about American Literature, I suspect that this is a lesson that may just stay with them. And, perhaps, they will be happier than most. I hope.


  1. Mattie,
    This was a great lesson you taught and your right it will stick with them for a long time. Just the right time of year too.
    Now, gotta go find the calculator.

  2. Geez, I wish when I was in college you were my professor! I have read that piece by Thoreau and should revisit it.

  3. Matty

    It's been a long time since I read that essay, so I'm rereading it today. I hope that I've lived my life with principles (like choosing to be a stay at home mom when society was telling me otherwise). Does gazing up at the sky count as a worthwhile pursuit? I spend a lot of time doing that! What a wonderful lesson! Thank you for sharing it!


  4. Mr. Emerson would certainly agree that stargazing is a wonderful pursuit. He wrote that should the stars only be seen once in a 100 years, how we should stand, watch, and remember the loveliness of the sight!

  5. What a wonderful class exercise! And perhaps one of those moments in time that your students will never forget!

    Ever since I first read Thoreau, I've enjoyed remembering bits and pieces of his sage advice!

    Thanks for jogging my memory!

    Happy Day!

  6. It WAS a brilliant lesson, Matty--good show! You taught those kids how to THINK for themselves about what is important/what is not, what is worth it to spend time on/what is not. Very good. :)

  7. What a great idea. I've never read it, but I'm going to search for it now. Thanks so much for sharing!!



Thanks for dropping in on the farm today! I enjoy your comments!