Transcendentalism Project Ideas

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Transcendentalism reflects an important era in American intellectual history, but it can be difficult for many students to fully grasp. These project ideas can help them explore the ideas of transcendentalism in greater depth.


Transcendentalism emerged in the early-mid 19th century as a distinctly American philosophy that melded emotion with reason in the pursuit of individualism and moral self-sufficiency. While many students see the 19th century as a period in which not much happens between the Louisiana Purchase and Civil War, this was a period of incredible intellectual flourishing. The following project ideas can help your students delve deeper into this philosophical movement in American history. These projects are intended for higher-level students but are also designed to be easily adaptable to fit into other classrooms.

Living History

Start by assigning each student a transcendentalist thinker from US history (if your class is very large, you can consider expanding this into related movements like Romanticism). The list of names should include figures like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederic Henry Hedge, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Students will take time to research their historical figure, learning about their life, philosophy, accomplishments, and contributions to transcendentalism. Eventually, you will host a living history day in class in which each student will present a short skit introducing themselves as their historical figure. Whether or not you ask them to come in costume depends on the preferences and resources of your class.

  • Materials: List of transcendentalists, costume and prop supplies as desired

Edited Transcendentalist Volume

Provide students with a substantial reading list containing the names of books, articles, editorials, and other literature (short stories, poems, etc.) associated with transcendentalism. Over a long period of time, students will work through as much of this list as they can (or as much as you feel comfortable asking them to) in order to gain a deep understanding of transcendentalism.

Ultimately, you will ask students to demonstrate their knowledge by compiling great works together into an edited text that explores the ideas of transcendentalism. Students will select chapters from books, articles, poems, or passages from the works they read and organize them by themes and ideas. You can ask students to either put together an actual copy of their edited volume of transcendentalist ideas, or simply write out the table of contents that lists their selections and organization of these works. In addition, students will write an introduction to their edited text that summarizes the history of the movement, presents the major themes, and explains their choices in selecting and editing the works in this edited volume.

If you wish to expand upon this, you can also ask students to research, identify, and incorporate documents from related movements like the Second Great Awakening, Romanticism, and abolitionism into their edited volumes. This could also include a wider range of literary texts like poems and short stories that were published as part of the intellectual renaissance in the time.

  • Materials: Reading list, access to transcendentalist works, writing/typing/printing supplies as desired

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