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In the play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, one of Thoreau’s pupils is a boy named Edmund. One day, when Edmund does not show up at school, his sister Ellen explains his absence.
ELLEN. Father’s worried – because he thinks Edmund’s learning too much. . . . I’m afraid Father doesn’t want him to come to your school at all any more.
HENRY. (Bridling) Oh. Your Father’s opposed to knowledge.
ELLEN. No. He’s opposed to Transcendentalists. That’s what he says you are.
Edmund is removed from school, then, not because he is learning either too little or too much but because he is learning how to think like a transcendentalist. In other words, not only is he being schooled in specific transcendentalist ideas, but, even more significantly, he is learning to doubt, question, probe, and not settle for conventional, traditional answers to the questions that occur to him. Edmund’s father would not be disturbed if Edmund were very quickly absorbing all the kinds of answers considered traditional and appropriate. Instead, he is disturbed because Edmund is learning, from Thoreau, to think for himself. Edmund’s father sees school as a place (in a sense) for indoctrination, not whole-hearted and untrammeled investigation. It is not rote learning that bothers Edmund’s father; instead, what bothers him is genuine and unlimited inquiry.
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