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Character Building - About Thinking

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

IT has been wisely said that a man is educated when he has "learned to think." Abraham Lincoln had no knowledge of Latin or Greek or rhetoric or logic, as they are taught in the schools. Horace Greeley never studied algebra or grammar or geometry. But both Lincoln and Greeley were splendidly educated men. They had learned to think and to express their thoughts! "A man who can take into his mind some great subject, and then shut out all the world beside while he thinks about it-until he has bounded it on the north, east, south, and west-that man is educated."

Sir Isaac Newton was once asked how he made his great discoveries. He answered, "By thinking forever about them." While he was lying under an apple-tree, a falling apple hit him in a "hurtable" place. This caused him to think why the apple came toward the earth and toward him instead of going toward the sun. This incident led to long-continued thought, and such thought to a great discovery. (See character-sketch of Sir Isaac Newton in our Library, Volume IX).

A thinking general is worth a dozen mere fighting generals, however brave and skilful. Von Moltke and Napoleon were profound thinkers. Of Napoleon Emerson said, "He won his battles in his head before he won them in the field." A business man who can do real, vigorous, and original thinking is worth dozens of business men who are mere imitators; and we are learning that a farmer who studies and thinks is a far better farmer than one who can merely plow a straight furrow, or mow a wide swath.

And now, "Gentle Reader," are you thinking, or are you only indulging in the common habit of idle dreaming and care-less reading? Are the statements we have made true, or are they false? Are they wholly true, or only partially true? Shut this volume now, close your eyes, and for ten minutes force yourself to think about "thinking."

Now, open your eyes, and look at that lamp, at that electric light, at that beautiful engraving on the wall! They are all the result of vigorous thought reaching through many centuries. The successful inventors have been great thinkers.

Yesterday a little boy read the old adage-(What is an adage, anyhow ?)-" Still waters run deep." Strange as it may seem, he began to think about it. He said to himself, "This cannot be true! Still water doesn't run at all." Then he asked his father about it, and his father said, "Look in the dictionary for the word `still.' Perhaps it means `without noise,' not `without motion.' " That boy had been told many times to keep still, but he never before knew all the meanings of the word. The next day it occurred to him that he had never looked into the dictionary for the meaning of the word "think," and then he began to acquire the "dictionary habit," one of the most useful habits that the young learner and thinker can form.

Think about your lessons, and think hard. Think about the books and the magazines you read. How much reading is done without thought! Such reading is a sort of "loafing" and a mere excuse for laziness. A boy was reading a poor daily newspaper the other day-he ought to have been reading some-thing better-and he found this peculiar sentence: "A hundred and fifty carloads of cats passed through Cleveland yesterday." He was really thinking when he read that, and he said, "Gee! I didn't know there were so many cats in the State of Pennsylvania." By a little thought and some well-directed questions he discovered that the proof-reader had blundered. The word "cats" should have been "oats." Perhaps he also learned that Cleveland is not in the state of Pennsylvania!

A boy of sixteen once read in one of Shakespeare's plays (see "The Winter's Tale") something about a ship reaching the coast of Bohemia. Investigation revealed to him the fact that Shakespeare blundered-Bohemia has no sea-coast.

Asking questions is a great help in the direction of sound thinking. Perhaps you are going to take a walk with your father, who is a very wise man. Be sure and have a lot of intelligent questions to ask him about birds and trees and flowers and fish. Then when you get home, read the two chapters "Walks with a Naturalist" and "Nature-Study at the Seaside" in Volume V of the Library.

There is food for thought everywhere, in books and running brooks, in business and in pictures, in earth and sea and sky. Think! think! forever think!

You will be helped and inspired as a thinker by reading any of the life-sketches of great men and women in our Library, especially the biographies of Franklin, Carlyle, Newton, Lydia Maria Child, Margaret Fuller Ossoli, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Look up the chapter on "The Habits of Ants" in Volume VIII and think about it. Become thoroughly familiar with the following myths in Volume II, thinking about them, asking questions, and consulting the dictionary: "Proserpina," "Orpheus," "The Apples of Idun," "The Vision of Tsunu," and "Hiawatha."

Many of the poems in Volume XI contain profound thought. At random we select a few for study: "The Rhodora," "A Forest Hymn," "To a Skylark," "The Tiger," and "Daffodils."

A quaint old poet wrote a verse that seems very simple-almost silly-but there is thought in it after all. Perhaps you will find it in Volume I of the Library.

"If I was a cobbler it should be my pride
The best of all cobblers to be;
If I was a tinker, no tinker beside
Should mend an old kettle like me. "

To be a first-class cobbler, or tinker, or teacher, or stenographer, or farmer, or merchant, or civil engineer, or poet, you must "think hard and think straight and think all the time!"

Children-young folks-you have the power to think. You can use this power in any way you choose. Others cannot think for you any more than they can eat for you. Only by thinking rightly can you become good and true and noble in conduct and in character. Take some time each day-if only three or four minutes-to let your mind dwell upon some good thought or lofty ideal. Ask your parents or friends or teachers how you can control and develop your thought-power.

We hope that some boy who reads this will say to himself, "I have made up my mind to sit alone every day and think a good thought for at least five minutes." We hope that many boys will do this, and many girls too !

In Volume X of the Library the essay "How Shall we Learn to Think?" will be found very helpful.

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