The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

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Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
History and the Importance of Learning from the Past Theme Icon
Protest, Resistance, Community, and Action Theme Icon
War Theme Icon
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon
Complacency, Conformity, and Responsibility Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Theme Icon

The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail focuses on the importance of teaching, learning, and education, especially because both Waldo and Henry are teachers of sorts. But the play also wonders what constitutes a “real” education. The school board controls the learning that students do in school, and Henry (when he is still employed by the board) laments that their learning is limited and controlled by administrative interests. At the same time, however, Henry notes that thought can’t actually be controlled by governing bodies, no matter how hard the governing bodies try. When he is in jail, he gestures to (the notably imaginary) walls around him and victoriously notes that these walls cannot constrain his thoughts, which can sail through them like a “rock through the air.” The government can control information, but it will never be able to control thought, so long as citizens like Henry keep their minds open.

The play also explores the difference between practical experiential learning and abstract learning. Waldo learns from books and lectures, while Henry learns from “being”—he believes a classroom is an inferior place for learning. But Henry would never have become Henry without attending Harvard and being inspired by Waldo. The two of them together make up a kind of cycle of education and learning in which the “thinkers” and the “doers” both have their place.

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Education, Thought, Information, and Learning ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Education, Thought, Information, and Learning appears in each act of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Education, Thought, Information, and Learning Quotes in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

Below you will find the important quotes in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail related to the theme of Education, Thought, Information, and Learning.
Act 1 Quotes

“Cast conformity behind you!”
“Cast…Conformity…Behind You…!”

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, we see Henry learning from his great teacher, Waldo, during his time as a student at Harvard. Waldo is an important role model for Henry because Waldo celebrates the value of free-thinking and counterculture. And yet even in this early scene, the limits of Henry's collaboration with Waldo are clear. Waldo tells Henry to ignore conformity and all its forms--but, paradoxically, Henry is literally conforming in the act of learning from Waldo and repeating his words exactly.

The passage highlights the paradoxes of education itself: is it ever possible, the playwrights seem to ask, to learn how to rebel from another person? Henry thinks that Waldo can teach him how to be free, but by the end of the play, the limits of such a model of education are clear. Only Henry can teach himself how to fight conformity.

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I want to be as much as possible like Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry is still a young, idealistic man--flirting with the doctrine of transcendentalism as pioneered by Ralph Waldo Emerson. And yet it's also clear that Henry doesn't really understand such a doctrine fully. Although transcendentalism and free thinking are all about individuality, Henry chooses to mimic a transcendentalist perfectly--he aims to be exactly like his teacher.

Henry, at this early point in the story, is something of an armchair adventurer. He likes Waldo's ideas about liberty and freedom, but only because he hasn't really thought them through--he's more interested in having a role model (Waldo) than he is in truly embodying the ideas that Waldo stood for. By the end of the play, however, their roles will seem to have reversed--Henry will have learned how to stand for his own beliefs, eschewing the empty comforts of role models, heroes, and self-described sages.

Act 2 Quotes

Seems to me I’ve got several more lives to live.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker), Bailey
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:
The play ends with a bold call to the audience: translate Thoreau's political aims into the present day. Thoreau tells us that he believes he'll live several more lives--and the quote is interesting for a couple reasons. It seems to make Thoreau into something of a Christ figure, a martyr who's continually celebrated ("resurrected?") by later generations for living a "just life." By the same token, the passage hints at the influence Thoreau has had on modern political methods--the civil disobedience of luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvey Milk, and Malcolm X might be said to continue Thoreau's legacy. In all, the playwrights urge us to follow Thoreau's example and stand up for what we know to be right, even if that means going against all of society.