Point of Departure

I would fain say something, not so much concerning the practitioners of law, medicine, finance, or entertainment, as to you who read these pages, who are said to live in Academia, something about your condition, especially your inward condition and circumstances in this world, in this profession, what it is, whether it is necessary that it be as bad as it is, whether it cannot be improved as well as not. I have traveled a good deal in Academia; and everywhere, in departments, on campuses, and out in the fields of study, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. I see young men and women, my colleagues, whose misfortune it is to have acquired full-time jobs, with committees, advisees, advanced courses, chairmanships, and even tenure or even endowed chairs; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had gone out into the world direct from school, adventuring upon life, that they might have seen then with clearer eyes what field they would be called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? How many a poor immortal soul have I seen well nigh crushed and smothered under its load of term papers, exams, committee work, and faculty meetings, creeping down the road of life! Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. It is very evident to me what mean and sneaking lives many of you lead, always worrying, always complaining about the dean, trying to get into print and out of work, a very ancient slough called by the Latins proferte aut perebitis, publish or perish, for many did indeed perish along the way. Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion of ourselves. Think of the junior faculty of the land hurrying home to churn out just one more article, not to betray too green an interest in their fates. As if you could win the rat race without feeding the rat!

A newly discovered fragment from an early draft of “Walden,” probably composed during Henry Thoreau’s stint as a classroom teacher.