I was rereading a bit of what Charlotte Mason wrote in Formation of Character yesterday. It’s quite lengthy, so we can only look at part of the section she calls Better-Than-My-Neighbor, but it’s brimming with good lessons for us!
Charlotte Mason starts off her chapter with a retelling of Euthyphro, one of the four Socratic dialogues (written by Plato, of course), which she assigned in her Mothers’ Education Course. (When I first read Euthyphro, I wondered why Charlotte Mason had assigned it. I had entirely forgotten this section in Formation of Character, and so I didn’t remember that she had spelled out what we can learn from it!)
Euthyphro, she tells us, has all the makings of a crank. And what is a crank exactly? That’s what I wanted to know. According to Miss Mason, it’s someone who has mistaken a part of piety for the whole. In this case:
Euthyphro knew as well as anyone the love and reverence due to a parent, but he allowed this single conception, — of justice, without regard to persons, as pleasing to the gods, — to occupy his mind exclusively.
It is debatable whether or not Euthyphro’s father was a murderer or not, but the fact remains that Euthyphro brought murder charges against his own father, and credited himself with piety because of it!
To Euthyphro, justice was the whole of piety — there was no other aspect or consideration.
Charlotte Mason goes on to say:
[E]very foolish little piety we accept as the whole duty of man makes us the less capable of just, liberal, and reverent thought; and we cannot be more in any situation than our own conception of what that situation requires.
Euthyphro’s zest for a single aspect of piety is exactly what has made him dangerous:
[T]he crank is not a harmless person. He is bad for himself and bad for other people.
Charlotte Mason goes on to flesh this out using Aristotle. (One thing I always enjoy about Charlotte Mason’s uses of Aristotle is that she quotes my favorite parts. She is a kindred spirit, isn’t she?)
So first she says:
[T]he crank … is a person who errs by excess. It is not always that he does not know, but that he allows one aspect of a subject to fill his mind.
Maybe you remember the concept of the Golden Mean from when we discussed it last year in regard to saddling the masterly inactivity virtue horse, if you weren’t familiar with it before that? Virtue is the mean between two extremes — it’s a midway point. Aristotle seems to be one of the earliest thinkers to flesh this truth out, and so, naturally, Miss Mason references him (from Nichomachean Ethics, if you’re wondering):
The time may come when we shall consider in the ordering of our lives the Aristotelian doctrine of the Mean, not because the Mean is safe and comfortable, but because excess is injustice, and no one may allow himself to be carried away by a single idea.
The school curriculum should be an exemplification of the doctrine of the Mean as regards both studies and students, and should not be allowed to depend for its success upon the extremes of emulation or ambition.
She relates this to her principle of offering a broad and generous curriculum: this curriculum has a tempering effect — it can accomplish the Aristotelian Mean — by the natural balance it provides. There is no specialization in it, you see.
But she doesn’t just mean breadth in studies — she specifically says it must be broad in regard to studies and students. Here she is getting at internal motives. The students must be guarded from their own various desires for distinction.
These two aspects — breadth in regard to students as well as studies — is a great protection against all sorts of injustices. In other words, this is how virtue is developed.
So what in the world does this have to do with personality types a la MBTI? As I see it, this is a place in which these principles can be applied, to the great benefit of our students.
We type our children and gain insight into raising them. In order to use this information wisely, though, we must keep in mind both Miss Mason’s example of the crank, as well her exhortation to pursue the Mean.
Let’s take the question that came up in last week’s Thoughtworthy post: do I treat introverts and extroverts differently when it comes to narration? The answer was yes (a little) but mostly no.
Let’s consider one Mean between two extremes. The first extreme is the person who needs to think — possibly for hours — before saying anything at all ever. The other is the person who never thinks before speaking. We all instinctively know that there are times when we need to be able to give an answer quickly. We also know that no one likes to listen to a verbal processor go on and on for hours.
The virtuous Mean is somewhere in the middle.
In this situation, personality typing may show us which extreme a child may tend toward. It’s an oversimplification to say that introverts would be one way while extroverts would be the other, which is why all four letters matter so much.
This is why I see MBTI as a tool. Yes, it helps me know how to reach my child. Yes, it signals to me where he might excel or struggle. But beyond that, I think it shows me where his extremes might be. Certainly not all of them, but still there is so much to be leveraged once I know my child’s type.
Virtue is something like smoothness. Nothing is jutting out at angles, nothing is caving in or collapsing on one side. Everything is nicely balanced. It’s beautiful.
But we aren’t born virtuous are we?
Instead, we all have bumps and rough places sticking out all over the place, to say nothing of the cavities and holes! The geography of each person is a little different, but the need for sandpaper and patching is evident nonetheless.
The crank is an extreme extreme — so much so that Charlotte Mason admits no one person could completely be one. Still, he is fruitful to think about, especially in regard to our children. You see, Miss Mason believed that once a man becomes a crank, he can’t be fixed:
The whole field of his mind is occupied by his own fallacious reasoning: there is no getting at him later, so we must catch him before he becomes a tiresome person…
If Aristotle’s Golden Mean is a description of perfect virtue — all smooth and round — , MBTI is like a topographical map revealing to us where the excesses and deficiencies might be.
But what is the sandpaper? What is the filling? How does this bumpy object become smooth?
Miss Mason holds out hope for our children in the form of curriculum — specifically a curriculum that is broad:
[W]ide knowledge of men and events is a necessary foundation for convictions which shall be just as well as reasonable.
When the curriculum covers much ground, progresses without belaboring, offering great thoughts — all the while being managed by a mother-teacher who can even out her child’s motives and aspirations — when every lesson does its job of smoothing in a way that is almost imperceptible to both student and teacher because it is so natural, well then … this, my beloved Afterthinkers, is how education can be like sandpaper.
Much and varied knowledge, the habit of study (begun early and continued through life), some acquaintance with the principles of an ordered moral life, some knowledge of economic science, should help in the making of well-ordered, well-balanced persons, capable of living without weariness, and without a disordered desire for notice from other people.
–Charlotte Mason, Formation of Character
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