College move-in day: What would Henry David Thoreau say?

As a daughter settles into her LSU dorm room, a father realizes that college dorm life today, with its matching accessories and designer coffee machines, buries the valued lessons of simplicity espoused by scholars like Thoreau.

John Rucosky/Tribune-Democrat/AP
Stephanie Seibert, a management major from Pittsburgh, unpacks in her dorm room during freshman move-in day at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, in Johnstown, Pa.

On the fourth-floor landing of the stairwell that led to my daughter Eve's sixth-floor dorm room, I stopped, caught my breath, and thought of Henry David Thoreau's famous pronouncement on the complications of consumerism: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor.”

It was dormitory move-in day for my college freshman daughter, and the elevators were so crowded with other residents that we'd decided to move some of Eve's stuff up the stairs instead. That led to the first lesson of the morning for my 18-year-old: If you want to know what's truly dear to you, try hauling it up six flights of steps.

Eve will, at some point, probably join her fellow college students in meeting Mr. Thoreau in American lit class, learning about his experiment in simplicity at Walden Pond.

But what Eve surely won't learn, although I intend to tell her, is that Thoreau faced a much earlier exercise in simplicity when he was a college student himself – an experience that has much to teach today’s campus residents about the power of getting by on less.  

As a Harvard freshman in 1833, Thoreau was assigned to live in Hollis Hall. Accommodations could hardly have been simpler, author Michael Sims writes in “The Adventures of Henry Thoreau,” a lively recent book about the famous writer’s youth. Rooms at Hollis “were spartan in their appointments: desk, table, two or three chairs, washstand, rocking chair,” Sims tells readers. “Not even the allegedly wealthy Southern students could afford such luxuries as the threadbare carpets leased to students at an extortionist’s rate, although the occasional devil-may-care senior indulged in one. Only the feather bed in its pine bedstead seemed theft-worthy.”

For the harsh New England winters, Sims adds, Thoreau and his dorm mates were issued cannonballs that could be warmed in the fireplace and then rolled into an iron skillet, where their radiant heat might take the chill off a room for a few hours. One student of the time borrowed a big book of theology from Harvard’s library and heated it near the hearth, using the volume as a bed warmer.

Such dormitories, while lacking creature comforts, expressed a potent message to students: What you know is more important than what you own. Their spare sensibility affirmed the university as a place of learning, not luxury.

Although it’s been a long time since America’s dorm residents warmed their shivering hands around red-hot cannon balls, no-frills dormitories were a durable tradition in our national life. When my oldest brother Tim enrolled at Louisiana State University in the 1970s, his dorm room in muggy Baton Rouge was un-air-conditioned. He kept cool with a box fan and warmed his leftovers on the radiator. Arriving at LSU a decade later, my future wife carried only a handful of belongings in her backseat, an economy shared by many, if not most, of her dorm mates.

The scene was much different, though, when my wife and I helped Eve move into LSU’s Miller Hall this semester. Her inventory included a floor-length mirror, refrigerator, designer coffee pot, and monogrammed headboard. There are plans to add a microwave. In the world of philosophy, my daughter leans less toward New England transcendentalism, more toward “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”

Eve's plenitude of possessions, which seemed pretty much the norm among her fellow freshmen, meant a logjam on move-in day. Built many years ago, Miller Hall has only a small bank of elevators, reflecting the realities of an earlier era. Back then, no one anticipated how much stuff today’s students would feel compelled to carry to college.

Those perks, however well-meaning, can’t give students what Thoreau’s bare-bones dormitory gave him, and what every education should: a continuing lesson in what he could do without. It's something I'll strive to teach my college freshman, though she'll probably have to learn that reality on her own.  

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