“… reading forcibly imposes on the mind thoughts that are as foreign to its mood and direction at the moment of reading as the signet is to the wax upon which it impresses its seal. The mind is totally subjected to an external compulsion to think this or that for which it has no inclination and is not in the mood. On the other hand, when it is thinking for itself it is following its own inclination, as this has been more closely determined either by its immediate surroundings or by some recollection or other: for its visible surroundings do not impose some single thought on the mind, as reading does; they merely provide it with occasion and matter for thinking the thoughts appropriate to its nature and present mood. The result is that much reading robs the mind of all elasticity, as the continual pressure of a weight does a spring, and that the surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have a free moment. The practice of doing this is the reason erudition makes most men duller and sillier than they are by nature and robs their writings of all effectiveness: they are in Pope’s words ‘Forever reading, never to be read'”
– Arthur Shopenhauer
“There can be no great art without great fable. Great art can only exist where great men brood intensely on something upon which all men brood a little….”‘
– William Macefield in commentary about William Shakespeare
“This is the way to make great men and not by petty efforts to form character in this direction or in that. Let us take it to ourselves that great character comes out of great thoughts, and that great thought must be initiated by great thinkers; then we shall have a definite aim in education. Thinking and not doing is the source of character.”
– Charlotte Mason
“They (children) must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this–that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder–and grow.”
– Charlotte Mason
Charlotte Mason and Arthur Shopenhauer probably wouldn’t have agreed about much of anything, but they both recognized a truth about the nature of thought.
As parents, we tend to think that one of the most productive things our children can spend their time doing is reading. There is some truth to that, because reading is a way to interact with the thoughts and ideas of intelligent and thoughtful people outside the realm of our everyday experience. It is important to read widely and deeply and consider the thoughts and ideas of the greatest minds of the past and present.
On the other hand, I think there is a tendency to undervalue time spent thinking. We see a child just sitting and staring into space and think they are vacuous. Why aren’t they reading? As I wrote in my essay on Art, Leadership, and Solitude, we need to foster a sense of independent thought and consideration. At that point, I considered time spent reading as a time of solitude, and it is to an extent. Reading Shopenhauer recently, though, started me thinking about where independent thought really comes in. I read a fair amount, but I definitely find that if I spend all of my free time reading, things pass through my mind unconsidered. The really valuable insights often come in time spent walking alone, or driving.
We create a virtuous cycle by spending time in reading or conversation with others, and then spending time alone digesting, considering, and formulating our own thoughts. If we recognize the value of each stage in the cycle, we can make sure that our children have opportunities for each. Don’t be so quick to interrupt the child lost in thought.