Prof asks whether students should learn 'dead white man' Thoreau at ‘Whiteness of Walden’ event

Gould and the students discussed whether people should “still read, teach, and study the work of this ‘dead white man’ today.”

Amherst College in Massachusetts hosted Middlebury College professor Rebecca Kneale Gould for an event called "The Whiteness of Walden."

Students at Amherst College in Massachusetts convened in April to ruminate on whether or not the teachings of one of history’s most influential environmentalists remain relevant, given that he is a “dead white man.”

Titled, “The Whiteness of Walden: Reading Thoreau with Attention to Race,” the lecture was given by Middlebury College environmental studies professor Rebecca Kneale Gould, who argues that those seeking to advance the environmental movement must acknowledge the “whiteness” of Thoreau’s ideas and legacy. 

The event description explains that the U.S. environmental movement is often critiqued “quite justifiably” for its “overwhelming ‘whiteness’” and that it is important to examine where Henry David Thoreau’s work and life “fit into this troubled history.” The event also addressed environmentalists’ “lack of attention to social and environmental justice,” as well as the “racist views of many early conservationists.”

Thoreau has not escaped criticism from social justice advocates, despite his advocacy for the abolition of slavery and his authorship of “Civil Disobedience.”

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Students joined Gould to examine if they should “still read, teach, and study the work of this ‘dead white man’ today.” and to tackle the supposed contradiction of the fact that even though Thoreau’s legacy is wrought with troubling and overwhelming “whiteness,” his work still “calls us to be accountable to our broken world in ways that may ring true now more than ever.”

In March, Gould was one of 19 Middlebury faculty members who signed a statement encouraging not only Middlebury college students and other faculty, but also local high school students, to walk out of their courses to “demand action against the climate crisis,” according to The Middlebury Campus.

The professor has offered courses at Middlebury situated at the intersection of social justice and the environment, according to her faculty bio. Descriptions for both classes posit that students will examine issues through the lenses of class, gender, race, and religion.

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