A herd of nonconformists

“Civil Disobedience” — the Thoreau essay and the idea — is taught as a romantic tale of intellectual heroism, says TeacherLore. The transcendentalists would not be impressed.

A few years ago I visited three different classrooms in Montana high schools on the same day. All three classrooms featured a poster with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

Few professions appear more like a herd of nonconformists than that of today’s English teachers.

TeacherLore suggests some reading materials to deepen the discussion and asks for suggestions.

The discussion of civil disobedience should include also, at minimum, a discussion of the rule of law, of the social contract, and of the difficulties inherent in setting oneself up as a judge of one’s own case.

I get annoyed by the idea that protesters are noble automatically, regardless of the quality of their ideas or their actions. Sincerity is overrated.

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  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    The value of order is underestimated.

  2. wayne martin says:

    > I get annoyed by the idea that protesters are
    > noble automatically, regardless of the quality
    > of their ideas or their actions.

    Good point. And we have the media to thank for pushing these people into our lives.

    Protests generally are pointless, and get pretty nasty for people who happen to live in the vicinity. I was stationed in the DC area in the early 1970s when there seemed to be a riot a week for a while. The students of the University of Maryland (on the north-east corner of DC) took over the Campus for about a week in winter of 1971. They closed down Route 1, which ran through the campus. I couldn’t help myself, so I went down one night to see what was going on, even though my unit was on standby for crowd control. A small group broke into the Administration building and set it on fire. There was a very distinct response from the law enforcement people at that point, resulting in my breathing in more gas that I had imagined it was possible to consume. When the whole thing eventually was over, the National Guard occupied the Campus for a few weeks.

    There was nothing that was gained, other than a big black eye for the University. The people milling around that night were just students that should have been home studying. Even the dubious claim that they were making a statement about getting out of Vietnam seemed hollow when the Communists took over the South and people fled by the millions. There were no protests on any American campuses then. Or when Pol Pot killed about 25% of the Cambodian population. Not a peep from American Universities.

    So, it’s noble (or non-conformist) to stand up against a murderous regime (such as Ho Chi Minh, or Pol Pot)? It’s a shame that people teaching aren’t required to spend 10 years or so in the real world before they take their place in our nation’s classrooms.

  3. Um, I think Civil Disobedience is actually Thoreau’s essay, rather than Emerson’s. The quote about non-conformity is from Emerson’s Self-Reliance.

    If one had really read “Civil Disobedience” lately, one probably wouldn’t see the same problems with it, I don’t think.

    It is extremely concerned with the rule of law, so much so that it demands that we violate unjust laws so that when we are punished, the government will have to address the morality of the law. If there were no punishment, there would be no examination of the law in question.

    Think about Thoreau’s example of spending the night in jail because he wouldn’t pay his poll tax. He didn’t object to Poll Taxes; he objected to the fugitive slave and and the war in Mexico.

    Civil Disobedience doesn’t, perhaps in contrast to the conventional wisdom about it, suggest that we just the laws that we don’t agree with and expect to get away with breaking them.

    Now, I agree totally about herds of non-conformist English teachers. They don’t seem to realize understand that in education, promoting superficial nonconformity is all the rage.

  4. Thoreau it is. I’ve fixed it.

  5. Bring back the poll tax! Let’s take more of Mexico!

  6. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Thoreau sought arrest, he did not fight it.
    I always caution protesters to see the 33rd word.

  7. Bill Leonard says:

    In discussing the rule of law and the social contract, one hopes those teaching such material also make the clear point that explicit civil disobedience is a luxury that only occurs in societies that enjoy the rule of law. And, one hopes that potential protesters are clearly advised that when they engage in provocative activity, they should fully expect their provocations to generate reactions that they won’t like. The nightstick tune-ups administered by Chicago’s finest at the Demo convention in ’68 come to mind.

  8. Bill Leonard,

    Are you kidding about the nightsticks?

    Yes, I think that protestors should be aware that provocations may generate reactions that they don’t like. But I don’t think you could read “Civil Disobedience” and come away expecting just to protest mindlessly and have a good time. It’s not that kind of essay.

    I agree that many contemporary protestors go far beyond anything that I think Thoreau would endorse as far as disrupting the lawful actions of other private citizens (I don’t think he’d have been a fan of shouting down speakers, for example.)

    But the ideas of his essay demand a very close examination of the relationship between the individual and the state, and I think show a great deal of respect for laws and lawful activity. It’s not the casual crap that activists spout off today.

  9. Bill Leonard says:


    No, I am not kidding about the nightsticks. That is exactly what happened in Chicago in 1968. It’s been awhile now, but as I recall, the trigger really was when protestors began hurling human feces at the police line. The violence on both sides scalated over the next several days.

    Further: nightsticks upside the head are the usual response to protests that get out of hand in most places other than the US, the UK and a handful of western European countries. (The exception is France, where “youths”, i.e., muslim thugs, rule. On average, 100 or so cars burn every night, and the government calls it a quiet night.)

    Note that I am not condoning such activity on the part of the authorities. But when protests turn violent — the burning of buildings, for instance — those involved should expect to face arson or other appropriate charges.

    Discussion of Thoreau’s views is interesting, but most of us live in the real world, where actions have consequences, even when such actions are exercised legally and lawfully.

  10. “I get annoyed by the idea that protesters are noble automatically, regardless of the quality of their ideas or their actions. Sincerity is overrated.” Of course, the people pushing the notion that protesters are noble automatically only mean some protesters. Just ask how they’d feel about a KKK march to protest affirmative action…