Pushing The Mind Beyond Comfort, Ease, And Intuition

Mar 9, 2017

Most students enjoy a deep read assignment, like the kind described here, wherein the student is given a small passage of a classic text and asked to compose a lengthy series of questions about it. One question per word makes for a nice ratio. 50 questions about 50 words. 100 questions about 100 words. The ratio could go higher, though.

After giving this assignment to my Old Testament students recently (50 questions on 1 Kings 19:11-14), I collected their work and asked them about the ebb and flow of their labors. Nearly all students reported hitting the wall at about question 20 or 25. The first half of the assignment came quite easily, but then became suddenly difficult.

As a jogger, I know the feeling. The health of the mind is a bit like the health of the body. If a man only runs until he gets tired, he will not develop stamina. If he pushes himself beyond the point of exhaustion, he becomes strong. The man who pushes himself physically finds that, after a month, he can do all manner of things with his legs and lungs he thought impossible before.

Genuine intellectual growth is much the same way. The mind is no less plastic than the body. When the mind is pushed beyond comfort, stretched beyond ease, intellectual strength is possible. If the student remains in a posture of intellectual ease and is allowed to quit a 50 question deep read assignment after 25 questions, nothing has been gained. He has run 25 intellectual meters and stopped because he is out of shape.

The best questions and the worst questions in the deep read assignment often come in the final third, when the student is pulled beyond comfort, ease, and pure intuition. About question 40, the student is on the verge of the counterintuitive. There is evidence of both exhaustion and epiphany. The student realizes how deep the text goes, the feeling induces a bit of vertigo, and he wavers back and forth between dizziness and sublimity.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs.