I teach English Composition at a diverse community college, and for the past few years I’ve asked my students to read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Teaching “Civil Disobedience” excites neither me nor my students with the thrill of encountering an innovative text, but surprisingly, the context of my teaching has made it new.
The first layer of novelty lies in the fact that most of my students haven’t heard of Thoreau. Whatever they’re teaching them in those high schools (pronoun vagueness intentional, and I’m a former high-school teacher), Transcendentalism isn’t high on the list. Both Thoreau’s beard and his diction are unfamiliar to my students, but with the help of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography lauding Thoreau’s eloquence on the importance of “noncooperation with evil,” we quickly discover that he’s preaching a familiar theme: what’s legal is sometimes the opposite of what’s right.
A second layer of novelty stems from the relevance of a 165-year-old essay to my students’ educational paths. As we read Thoreau’s description of the inferiority of the American government to the American individual in statements such as “This American government . . . has not the vitality and force of a single living man” and “[The American government] does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate [emphasis original],” it’s hard not to think of the stories my remedial Composition students have told me about complacent English teachers in their pasts, and we discuss whether or not the current American government educates and how much vitality it seems to have to invest in the cause of keeping the country, or its citizens, free. In my students’ experiences and those of their peers, is the public-school system more invested in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, or constructing it?
This leads to a final source of contextual novelty for “Civil Disobedience”: race. Thoreau exhorts his readers to be jailed if necessary before they contribute their poll taxes to a government that, in his view, wishes to use tax money to conduct the Mexican War and thereby spread slavery. His experiment in civil disobedience occurred in the inevitable context of his status as a Harvard-educated white male, and he spent one night in jail. Imagining for a moment that black men had the option of paying poll taxes in 1849, how would Thoreau’s experiment have been received at the time if he had been black? What laws and legal practices today are immoral, and what happens to those who resist them?
Three quotes from “Civil Disobedience” that have been particularly relevant to my students’ discussions of law, morality, and the relationship between police and citizens:
• “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
• “A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences . . . and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”
• “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”
Before reading Thoreau, my students write an essay about an event in their own lives that changed who they are, and I’ve learned from these essays that the contexts of many of my students’ lives are very different from my own. I don’t pretend for a minute that bringing “Civil Disobedience” to their attention is a form of letting my life be “a counter friction to stop the machine” of social inequity that characterizes some of their lives. But as a teacher, using “Civil Disobedience” in the context of a classroom mostly filled by people whose lives somehow demonstrate civil society’s disobedience or betrayal of the social contract has proven valuable. Pedagogically, it’s exciting to see students respond passionately to an essay they had no intention of having a meaningful encounter with and discover its connections to the contemporary world. Personally, I would love for it to have the potential to help, in Thoreau’s words, “prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”
Michael Estes teaches English in Louisville, Kentucky, in the company of his wife and two daughters. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, RHINO, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere.