I have a friend whose dad had a personal library of several thousand books. When my friend was about ten years old, his dad enrolled him in a speed-reading course. Soon afterward, he began reading the classics of world literature.
One great book at a time, he became a passionate reader. As a consequence, he began to ponder the meaning of life. The more he read, the more thoughtful and independent his mind became. At age 15 he left home to pursue a life as a painter. And he continued to read, roughly a book every day for the rest of his life.
At age 70, he is now a world-famous artist. And his personal library contains over 18,000 volumes, almost exclusively nonfiction. And he has one of the most interesting minds I’ve ever encountered.
Of course, his mind isn’t the product of a formal education. He didn’t graduate from high school, and he didn’t attend an esteemed university. He is a self-made man who reads every day and continues to pursue his passion with intensity. The last time I visited him I saw a copy of William H. Gass‘s latest collection of literary criticism, Life Sentences, lying on his coffee table, bookmarked at chapter four.
If you are raising children and want the best for them, a college education can be a huge positive step, but it’s not the ultimate answer. Don’t get me wrong. A college education can expose young people to ideas, give them learning skills and punch their ticket for that first job out of college. But you need to know that very few professors consciously teach kids how to think. As they see it, that’s not what they’re getting paid the big bucks for. Their job is to pass along the latest information, to give them the answers.
The problem is, even the best knowledge, information and answers can’t guarantee success. In the world of action, it comes down to what you do with what you’ve learned – action – exercising good judgment and decision-making.
If your child ever does acquire good judgment, it will have to be because you and other adults stimulated your child’s mind in youth – teachers, coaches, counselors, relatives, or other adults who cared about your child encouraged her to think for herself.
When I was in high school, I had a friend who had a fine mind. He knew things I didn’t know. He understood things I didn’t understand. He had learned to do things I could not do. I admired him and wanted to be like him. I discovered that he read a lot. So I began to read the books he recommended. It was quite an awakening. And it happened at just the right time, while my brain’s prefrontal cortex, which handles comprehension, analysis, judgment, decision making, planning and organization, was in the sensitive period of development that begins and ends during adolescence.
I was lucky to have a few influences like that. I didn’t start reading serious books until I was 16, but after that I read obsessively.
I earned my Ph.D. from Duke University in 1977, but I like to tell young people that as important as that that part of my education was, 99% of what I know today I’ve learned since then – on my own, from reading.
Reading benefits a young person two important ways. First, it helps build his vocabulary. Having words for things is essential to creating and organizing concepts in the mind. No language, no knowledge.
Second, the content of books can reveal insights which make the child reflect on important issues, to help the child use his or her mind to connect the dots – while programming the prefrontal cortex for critical thinking.
Language. High-level thinking. These are the two mental abilities that separate us from all other species on Earth. And you can get these life-changing powers from reading the best books.
There are many ways to program your teenager’s prefrontal cortex for critical thinking. One of the best is to encourage your child to read.