Free Learning For All: Revisiting Henry David Thoreau

About 165 years ago, a young man in Massachusetts decided to simplify his life as much as possible by living in a shack in the woods, confronting only the essentials of life to determine firsthand what people need and don't need. The outcome of this experiment, documented in his book Walden, demonstrated Socrates' wise saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Thoreau invites each of us to reflect more deeply about our role on the planet, what it means to be true to oneself and how to avoid mindlessly following the herd. In his separate essay, “Civil Disobedience,” he explains why jail is the most logical place for a person to be who is subject to unjust laws.

Across the world a person named Mahatma Gandhi read Thoreau's writings, took them to heart, and showed how dignity could vanquish brutality. Back here in the United States, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. further developed Gandhi's methods of passive resistance to continue the long work of dismantling slavery.

What does all this have to do with technology, you might ask? Plenty, as it happens. When Thoreau invited me to engage in a lifetime of reflection, I took him up on the offer. In my interactions with the world, when I see things that unsettle me, I speak softly but firmly about such matters. And after doing so, I sometimes choose to take actions in support of my convictions. And then I tell others about such actions and invite them to consider whether they might choose such a path for themselves.

And regarding the herd mentality that Thoreau so carefully warned us about, I see it so clearly represented in the modern day. When 90 percent of the world chose to use Microsoft Windows, I was among those holdouts who said, “Maybe this isn't such a good idea.” And when Apple started looking and behaving more and more like Microsoft, the Thoreauvian voice in my head urged me to steer clear of their clenches by moving to Linux. And so I have started my own little experiment, formatting the hard drive of my Macbook with Ubuntu Linux, and living exclusively in Linux for several months. Some might think it a sacrilege to wipe Mac OS off the hard drive of a Macintosh computer. I see it less as a sacrilege than a duty. If I am beholden to any company for that most essential tool of the modern day, then I am less of a person as a result. I need to keep my options open. There might come a day when there is no more Mac OS and people familiar with Linux will have more choices on that day. I like having more choices. I detest having choices withdrawn from me.

I also owe an obligation to my community to help others maintain the maximum number of choices in their lives. People at the lower end of the income bracket especially need to have the maximum number of choices in their lives. If they don't, they will experience the suffocating experience of living a choiceless life. That unsettles me. In Thoreau's day, the way to communicate ideas was via essays and books. Today, people communicate using blog posts and YouTube videos. So to accompany this blog post I created this short YouTube video. My goal in this video is to help others stop and think. Wise decisions can only be made when we think.

As it happens, I earn my living at a public library in the Washington, D.C., area, and I often encounter people new to the United States who want to improve their English skills. I'm a believer in the free culture movement, so I recently started exploring what free multimedia learning materials I could create to help these community members. Some of these community members already own a personal computer. Those that don't own one, I deliver a donated computer to.

An easy way to create free multimedia learning material is to marry the public domain book narrations from Librivox.org with the text of the books that are being narrated. I had reasonable success doing this with the book Call of the Wild, and uploaded that experiment to YouTube. This is not ideal learning material for someone wanting to improve their English, but it is free.

People who view this multimedia combo on YouTube (or installed on their donated computer) can learn the spelling of English words, and some new vocabulary, and how English sentences are assembled. The narrator for Call of the Wild, Gordon Mackenzie, is superb at his craft. Imagine my delight to discover Gordon Mackenzie narrating Walden on the LibriVox web-site. In just an hour or two, I was able to create this YouTube video with the opening chapter of Walden being read by Gordon Mackenzie. I used a free ebook reading program, Calibre, to display the text as clearly as possible. And I used a screencasting program to marry the audio and text display together.

I'll be copying this multimedia material onto a donated computer I delivered to a family from Ethiopia. This past summer, two high school students from this family taught themselves to type using that computer. Now they'll be able to see and hear Thoreau's Walden on their computer. Will this learning material help them with their English reading, writing, and comprehension skills? It might. I can't know for sure, but I'm willing to experiment. It seems to me this free culture path is a path worth walking down. My only guide is my intuition and suppositions. As Thoreau teaches us, that guide can be as fine a rudder as any. Use your rational mind as much as possible to mold your intuitions. Then trust your intuitions. Trust them, for they are all that you have.

--Phil Shapiro

The blogger is an educator and technology commentator in the Washington DC-area. He can be reached at philshapiroblogger@gmail.com or via Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/philshapiro

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of my friend and mentor, Dave McIntire, whose simplicity and kindness affected the lives of many in the District of Columbia and elsewhere. Working alongside his life partner, Elizabeth, the two of them bent the world in the direction of kindness and inclusion. Shortly before his unexpected death in July 2011, Dave listened to an audiobook recording of Walden while driving with Elizabeth to West Virginia. When words ring true, we need to revisit them often.

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