Teaching Transcendentalism Through A “Field of Dreams"

By Sarah Degnan Moje

Teaching Transcendentalism through a fantasy movie? The film "Field of Dreams" helped me teach this concept to my class. Try the following lesson with downloadable power point to teach it to your class as well.

Kevin Costner -- a modern-day Thoreau? “Take time to stop and smell the flowers." This advice has been handed down through countless generations and was perhaps never taken more literally than by Transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and to a greater extent, Henry David Thoreau. However, when one tries to introduce the concept of Transcendentalism to the classroom, most teachers are met with stares of confusion and at times horror.

“Thoreau did what?" “He lived where?" “ Why did he do that?" “It sounds stupid". These are just some of the responses I got each year when I taught an excerpt from Walden. It got to the point where good old Henry David was frustrating me. I would go home and night and think, “Why DID he have to do this? Now I have to teach about him and the kids just don’t get it."

I tried many ways to get them to understand that it was not the actual cabin by the woods that was important, but the concept of slowing down and appreciating what was around him. It is a difficult concept for students, because not every one of them is in love with nature.

Field of Dreams Movie Poster Inspiration Strikes

However, I soon figured out a way to help them understand. What could be better for students than a visual aid to help them make that connection? Late one night, I was flipping through the TV and “Field of Dreams" was on. I tuned in once again to watch Kevin Costner build his baseball diamond in his yard and as I watched, it struck me. He’s a modern-day Thoreau! He’s being encouraged to connect to a simpler time, to stop and appreciate the beauty around him, and yes, to gain an appreciation for “the love of the game."

Thoreau’s giving up of his belongings is mirrored in Costner’s characters defaulting on his mortgage. Thoreau’s idea of living a simple life can be seen in Joe Jackson’s desire to just play a simple game of baseball. Jackson’s ghostly voice and presence may well be the voice and presence of Thoreau himself, encouraging Costner to slow down and appreciate all he has.

The symbols are there. The teaching tool for “Walden" and the beliefs of the Transcendentalists are there in the film. Download the intro power point on the Chicago “Black" Sox, the film power point and assessment. Have your students read a review of the film. Use the writing assignment to make the connections to the Transcendentalist Movement. And score a winning run as the teacher of an engaged, motivated, interested class with this fun and thought-provoking lesson.