Some Disjointed Thoughts on Thinking

Reading a book at night has always been a dangerous prospect. If the bedtime reader wishes to relax his mind before sinking into sleep, he must choose carefully.

The wrong book could, instead of saving him from a few minutes of staring at the ceiling, cost him several hours of wide-eyed attention as he strains to conclude the final chapters by flashlight, because, after all, it is already two o’clock in the morning, and he has only three chapters to go.

On the other hand, if a reader imagines his mind is most relaxed and receptive to a book just before bed, when the world has left him in peace for a few blessed minutes, and the cares and obligations of the daytime have called a temporary retreat, he may find his body has other ideas.

Just at this most fruitful moment of devoting his entire attention to the inexpressibly leisurely and luxurious act of reading, his eyelids will droop; his breathing will slow; his head will sink down onto the pages, and he finds nothing has entered his mind but pleasant dreams.

Life enjoys confronting us with such ironies as these; that one cannot go left for fearing of veering right and vice versa. The Greeks said virtuous men achieved balance in this world in paradoxes and contradictions. Philosophers have since protested that one ought not balance two vices and expect to produce a virtue. Alternating periods of sloth and frenzy do not a happy man make.

Can a man take the opposite impulses that incline him to dawdle in bed, or slave at a desk, and produce a life of accomplishment and leisure? It is easy to make such a critique and feel superior to the ancient author, imagining that one has in a few sentences resolved a question of centuries.

But the wise reader always offers classics the benefit of the doubt. What good is it to read The Odyssey, and think, They only talked that way because they were Greek and old. That conclusion does not do the poem justice, nor does it do the student’s mind any good.

There is the real difficulty: superiority in the mind of a student. Yet I found such thinking the other day in a student tasked with writing an essay on “Love and Nobility in the Middle Ages.”

In all fairness to the teacher, I saw not the assignment but the results. The results, however, did not do the teacher credit.

The student had typed up a few lines from Chaucer, remarked on the word choice, and then, without further ado, concluded that knights in medieval Europe could not have really been noble because they abused lower class women. Not only does such a conclusion forsake all pretensions at analysis, but it stems from not much more than a sense of moral superiority towards the past.

Such a conclusion, devoid of citations and no more specific in context than “medieval Europe,” does not reflect thorough or even inquisitive research. Such a conclusion does not penetrate the veneer of misinformed stereotypes that have attempted to replace fancy.

I know the Middle Ages were not like the King Arthur stories, the student thinks, and so he concludes that all of medieval Europe were hypocrites and criminals. This conclusion is acceptable because it is fashionable.

This encounter did not instill me with confidence for public schooling. Neither, to be frank, did twelve years of public schooling. The writing that results from education like that can only interfere with a man’s sleep by giving him nightmares.

Author: Kittie Helmick

Kittie Helmick studied Comparative Literature and Critical Translation at the University of Oxford, after serving with the Peace Corps in South Africa. Her desire to speak truth in grace led her to found Salt and Iron: Seasoned Writing and its predecessor GoodTrueBeautiful. She has also published critiques of pop culture on The Critic, The Federalist, and Patheos.

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