Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.
I cannot tell you how many times I have written and rewritten this post. The education of gifted children (meaning children with IQ’s at least two standard deviations above the mean) can be a controversial subject. There are a lot of strong opinions out there, and while I want to open doorways to expanded ways of thinking, rather than burn bridges, it’s difficult because what I want to say cuts against the grain of much contemporary advice.
Let’s begin with a couple caveats, then.
- This is not all that can be said about educating the gifted. This isn’t even all I have to say about it. You can read my previous post here, and I plan to write more in the future.
- This is not a how-to post. My mantra is always Philosophy First! I believe that right methods proceed from right principles. I may or may not get into the practical. The practical can be a dangerous thing to opine on, but principles are always safe.
I have two passages from Charlotte Mason’s Parents and Children I’d like us to consider today. The first is this:
Disposition, intellect, genius, come pretty much by nature; but character is an achievement, the one practical achievement possible to us for ourselves and for our children; and all real advance in family or individual is along the lines of character. Our great people are great simply by reason of their force of character.p. 72
Later in the same volume, at the beginning of her “Catechism of Education Theory,” Miss Mason repeats herself:
We believe —
That disposition, intellect, genius, come pretty much by nature.
That character is an achievement, the one practical achievement possible to us for ourselves and for our children.
That all real advance, in family or individual or nation, is along the lines of character.
That, therefore, to direct and assist the evolution of character is the chief office of education.p. 233
Let’s reflect on this.
“… genius come[s] pretty much by nature …”
I’ve read a lot on IQ and genetics. What I’ve read tells me that IQ runs in families. While poor prenatal nutrition, prenatal drug use, and/or malnutrition during childhood can adversely effect IQ, IQ is generally an expression of genetics, something a child is born with, and doesn’t change much over time (barring an accident or sickness that hurts the brain).
High IQ parents are more likely to have high IQ children because while high IQ hasn’t been narrowed down to a single gene, it still appears to be heritable.
The question is why does this matter?
First, modern IQ research seems to bear out what Miss Mason is asserting here — we don’t have much influence over IQ.
More importantly, when Charlotte Mason reminds us that “genius comes by nature,” she’s doing this in the context of an educational conversation. We cannot make genius. Some are born with it, and some aren’t.
The point is that the creation of genius is not an educational task.
Whatever we think about educational goals, raising IQ shouldn’t be one of them — it’d be a waste of time.
“… character is an achievement …”
While IQ is generally unchanging, character is changeable. Whether children are geniuses, or “normal,” or special needs, they can all grow up to be good persons … or bad persons.
In her very first volume, Charlotte Mason shares with us where she’s coming from and why what she writes is so important to her. You see, as a teacher, Charlotte Mason found the outcomes disappointing. She wrote:
[T]he disappointing thing was, that nothing extraordinary happened. The children were good on the whole, because they were the children of parents who had themselves been brought up with some care; but it was plain that they behaved very much as ”twas their nature to.” The faults they had, they kept; the virtues they had were exercised just as fitfully as before. The good, meek little girl still told fibs. The bright, generous child was incurably idle. In lessons it was the same thing; the dawdling child went on dawdling, the dull child became no brighter. It was very disappointing. The children, no doubt, ‘got on’ — a little; but each one of them had the makings in her of a noble character, of a fine mind, and where was the lever to lift each of these little worlds?Home Education, p. 98
She goes on to say:
Consideration made the reason of the failure plain: there was a warm glow of goodness at the heart of every one of the children, but they were all incapable of steady effort, because they had no strength of will, no power to make themselves do that which they knew they ought to do.Home Education, p. 99
When Charlotte Mason talks about habit training, growing minds with ideas, building relationships, and training the will (among other things), all of this began with her observation that education as it stood in her time was not producing an improved people. Children exited school pretty much the same as they entered it, only older.
“… all real advance in family or individual is along the lines of character.”
This reminds me so much of the Greek concept of paideia. In his book, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Werner Jaeger writes that Greek education was an aspect of paideia, and paideia was
the creation of a higher type of man.p xvii
Charlotte Mason’s earliest complaint about education was that it left the child where he was — there was no improvement in character. The truth that she perceived is that character is the only means to accomplish real advance, yet that means was overwhelmingly neglected.
I think we all know that great genius, if put in the service of self or evil, if given into the hands of a man of low calibre, is squandered at best and dangerous at worst.
And yet, when I look at the world of gifted education, I rarely see character discussed.
What I see instead is rather disturbing. Little Susie is gifted, and that’s why she has such violent tantrums. Tommy’s IQ is rather high, and that’s why he lies so much — he’s just highly imaginative. Sweet Isabelle has rather a dark side, yes, but you see she’s a genius and she just feels things so much more intensely than you and I.
“… to direct and assist the evolution of character is the chief office of education.”
Here’s the reality: gifted kids can be difficult. I’m not denying this.
What I am denying is that gifted children are somehow less human than other children, that they cannot be taught self-control, that they must remain slaves to their passions and impulses.
This means we stop using giftedness as a label to excuse bratty, selfish, and self-centered behavior. Giftedness does not mean the child cannot be trained to have self-control. It certainly does not mean the child cannot learn to consider others.
The application of this idea requires wisdom. Gifted children are often misunderstood. People see rebelliousness when the child is being inquisitive. Parents are annoyed when the child’s intense quest for knowledge is an inconvenience. Schools often maintain an atmosphere that is frustrating to gifted children, which is basically a giant temptation to misbehave (and, yes, even have a tantrum).
Acknowledging that character should be the primary goal of education doesn’t mean we need to address all problems as solely character problems. Character issues are often tied to other issues. As in all educational challenges, in order to prescribe a solution, we first have to look at the big picture and make sure we’re accurately assessing the problem.
It’s important to remember that character is formed by many tools, not just condemnation of bad behavior.
The point here is that education is still education, regardless of what sort of child we have before us. In classical and Charlotte Mason education, character reigns supreme. It is our goal, our aim. It isn’t ignored and it isn’t excused. The game doesn’t change just because a child has a high IQ.
In other words …
Gifted children are persons, too.
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