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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Narrow-Mindedness, That Demon of the Intellect (Charlotte Mason and Gifted Kids)

    May 18, 2020 by Brandy Vencel

    Some people call it preoccupation. Others call it intense focus. My mother called it having a one-track mind. Personally, I call it obsession. Whatever it’s called, gifted kids are particularly prone it it. (Please note: this doesn’t mean regular kids don’t get this way, or that all gifted kids do. I’m just making a generalization based on observation.)

    Parental intervention isn’t always required, of course. Johnny’s new interest in trains is just that: new. It’ll wear off in a month, tops. It’s normal and natural for him to be excited about it right now. No harm has been done.

    But other times, the obsession lasts months, even years. This is when it becomes that “demon of the intellect” Charlotte Mason warned us about.

    Charlotte Mason and Magnanimity

    One of the goals of a Charlotte Mason education is magnanimity. I looked through a number of modern dictionaries, and they don’t quite define it the way Miss Mason did. They mainly focus on the magnanimous man as being very generous. He’ll buy your groceries if you forgot your wallet, and you’ll think to yourself, “There goes a truly magnanimous man.”

    Another dictionary focused on kindness, especially toward someone you don’t like. If you beat your enemy in a race, for example, and then extend the Handshake of Peace (even after he tried to cheat you), you are magnanimous.

    These definitions are good ones, and without them, our mental picture of magnanimity would lose something. But they aren’t really getting at magnanimity as virtue. Magnanimity is more properly understood as a greatness of mind and heart. Aquinas called it “a stretching forth of the mind to great things” (Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 129, Art. 1). Of course this would include generosity, kindness, and forbearance, but those are more side-effects than the thing itself.

    In her book Ourselves, Charlotte Mason contrasts two brilliant men, Charles Darwin and Leonardo Da Vinci. By the end of his life, Darwin’s mind (and, as a consequence, soul) was narrow and small. Da Vinci, on the other hand, was bursting with a lively magnanimity.

    Of Darwin, she says:

    He lost himself, so to speak, in Science, and in the end he could not read poetry, look at pictures, could not even think upon God, because he could not turn his mind out of the course he had exercised it in all his life.

    Ourselves, p. 46

    How does something like this happen?

    It is possible for a person to go into any one of the great fields of thought we have considered, and to stay there with steady work and constant delight until he becomes incapable of finding his way into any other … great fields.

    Ourselves, p. 46

    When Gifted Children Get Obsessed

    Just like with the book gluttony we discussed before, this can get complicated, especially when the subject with which the child is obsessed is so good. He shows such promise. People tell us he has a gift. Perhaps he will be such a great blessing to the world that we do not have the right to hold him back.

    It helps to remind ourselves of a few essential truths. Narrow-mindedness is the result of vice, not virtue. The inability to move into other great fields of thought is a weakness, not a strength. The lack of magnanimity that results from over-specialization is necessarily a lack of virtue — the child (or man) has underdeveloped potential, he is less than he was born to be.

    Miss Mason points us to Da Vinci and his like:

    The people who lived when, perhaps, the greatest things were done, the greatest pictures painted, the greatest buildings raised, the greatest discoveries made, were very particular on this point. The same man was an architect and a painter, a sculptor and a poet, and a master of much knowledge besides; and all that he did, he did well; all that he knew was part of his daily thought and enjoyment.

    Ourselves, p. 46

    How is Magnanimity Developed?

    If the goal is to develop, as much as possible, the virtue of magnanimity, the necessary question is how this can be done. Thankfully, Charlotte Mason offers us solid answers:

    Upon the knowledge of these great matters — History, Literature, Nature, Science, Art — the Mind feeds and grows. It assimilates such knowledge as the body assimilates food, and the person becomes what is called magnanimous, that is, a person of great mind, wide interests, incapable of occupying himself much about petty, personal matters.

    Ourselves, p. 78

    The generosity and kindness — that peculiar lack of pettiness — is a side-effect. We clearly see that here. The virtue is born of wide-reading. It is a consequence of the development of as many relationships with as many subjects as possible. Having a great mind in this sense is inextricably tied to having wide interests.

    The question becomes, then, what to do.

    What do I do when my child is obsessed with something to the point of rejecting all other subjects and thoughts?

    It is one thing to like trains. It is quite another to decide that because trains exist, nothing else on earth is worth thinking about or loving. When we frame it this way, we see how easy it is for a favorite subject to become an idol. The slip into cold hearts and narrow minds is a logical consequence:

    The idols of the nations are but silver and gold,
    The work of man’s hands.
    They have mouths, but they do not speak;
    They have eyes, but they do not see;
    They have ears, but they do not hear,

    Nor is there any breath at all in their mouths.
    Those who make them will be like them,
    Yes, everyone who trusts in them.

    Psalm 135:15-18

    When we fall into idolatry of a good thing, we become like our idols, incapable of speaking, seeing, or hearing. We see how an obsessed child becomes fractious and unloving, grasping at his favorite while rejecting many good things. We say, “He is gifted; it is hard for him,” but this is not enough. It is our duty as mothers to help him.

    We cannot save him. That is God’s work. But let us not forget that as mother’s we do God’s work when we do our duty. God gave him a mother. We must try to remedy the situation.

    Once upon a time I had a child who was so completely obsessed with a branch or two of natural philosophy that she decided she despised all else. She rejected history and literature. She hated math. She even refused to engage with other branches of science. She was uninterested in everything else, even people.

    I did something very controversial in Charlotte Mason circles. I have never talked about it publicly before. (I suppose I wanted to wait and see if it actually worked!)

    I struck nature study and naturalist books from her curriculum.

    That’s right. I took it all out.

    This doesn’t mean those things didn’t happen. She continued with her obsession, reading and making journal entries in her free time. But during school hours, I added other things in those slots. More history. A different geography book. Some astronomy and some architecture. A number of things appeared as the terms went by. It helped that when I had done our end of school year review, I had specifically asked her what she would like to study that she hadn’t yet. This gave me ideas about non-science relationships she was primed for.

    I worked hard during this time. I did everything I could to save or cultivate other relationships. If I saw a book I thought she’d like, I bought it. If there was a place we could go or a thing we could see that I thought might help, I tried to make it happen. I curated podcast episodes for car rides that I thought might open her up to new things. Almost every moment I was with her was calculated to broaden her horizons. I don’t remember exactly how long I did this; it was probably 3-5 terms before I returned the curriculum to normal.

    I don’t know if this was the “right” thing to do, but it was the only option I could think of at the time. I wasn’t going to forbid the relationship, and I didn’t want to limit her liberty during free time, so the only way I could lessen the total amount of time she spent on it was to remove it from school hours.

    And it worked. While this is still her favorite subject, she spends much time now on other things. She’s become interested in history and literature. She writes journal entries that have nothing to do with biology. She even tolerates math.

    Do I have a “magnanimous” child? Time will only tell that truth. She is still young, and Darwin’s idolatry polluted his adulthood more than his youth. But I can pray for her, knowing we’ve worked to set her on a better path.

    Is this normative?

    Heavens, no! Most children will never need this kind of intervention. Some are more receptive; simply telling them they are off balance will have an effect. And, like I said above, many obsessions pass in time without any intervention at all.

    It’s not normative, but it is occasionally necessary. If we claim that education is about virtue, about the development of character, but do not address obvious points of weakness, we are hard pressed to say we are educating. Education is more than a book list; it’s a discipline, not just a life.

    Not every child is a Da Vinci, but I think we all admire his greatness (his magnanimity) as a goal, when we read:

    Possessed of a divine and marvellous intellect, and being an excellent geometrician, he not only worked at sculpture, . . . but also prepared many architectural plans of buildings, and he was the first, though so young, to propose to utilise the Arno to make a canal from Pisa to Florence. He made designs for mills and other engines to go by water, and as painting was to be his profession, he studied drawing from life.

    Vasari, quoted by Charlotte Mason in Ourselves, pp. 46-47

    This sort of thing is not attained when obsession is ignored or, even worse, coddled or encouraged. We must have mercy on the little ones entrusted to our care. They do not always know what is best for them. This is why God gave them mothers.

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    11 Comments

  • Reply Rondalyn Ohrenberg May 22, 2020 at 8:38 pm

    “We must have mercy on the little ones entrusted to our care. They do not always know what is best for them. This is why God gave them mothers.”
    So true! But how to convince our children of it . . . . .

    I had never considered the correlation between “magnanimity” and “the renaissance man.” But now I am thinking of other people worthy of admiration and emulation and I am seeing that connection. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 23, 2020 at 7:56 am

      I think some of them remain unconvinced until adulthood! I was one of those children who wanted to stay inside ALL THE TIME. My mother used to force me to go out and I could give her quite the attitude about it. Looking back, I’m thankful, but I’m not sure I ever acted thankful as a child; it was more that I just outgrew that tendency as a teen.

  • Reply Rachel Allison May 18, 2020 at 2:52 pm

    I love this, and I would only change that I think Darwin’s mind was so narrow BECAUSE his soul was so narrow (i.e., hard-hearted). We now know (as I’m going to give Mason the benefit of the doubt that she did not, because if she DID know then her use of Darwin annoys me to no end), because of his own admissions, that he set out to argue against God. He was not open to any interpretation of facts which would admit to a Creator. That is the soul being hard, and the mind following. Or, if you will, Will dictating what Reason will say.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 18, 2020 at 3:53 pm

      I don’t think I know enough about Darwin to have an opinion on this, but what you say makes total sense to me! ♥

  • Reply Rachel May 18, 2020 at 12:42 pm

    This is so helpful for me right now. I have a child who has been concerning us with his intense focus in one direction and we’ve been praying and acting to restrict and broaden his mind. It’s been a little discouraging lately so, thank you, it’s good to have this encouragement!

  • Reply Amy May 18, 2020 at 12:21 pm

    Thank you for this article, Brandy. I have a 9 year old son who is completely obsessed with Pokemon. He suffers with an anxiety disorder and has some autistic tendencies and since he was 2 we have gone through cycles of obsessions. For the last year and a half it’s been Pokemon. He talks about it all day long, sorts cards, asks to play the game, etc. He is very smart and lessons come easy for him. Throughout this school year I have been having thoughts on the same line that you shared. Anytime I can get his focus on something else utimately is for his good. Lesson times, playdates with friends who do not collect Pokemon, read alouds, etc. I feel like those are so important to pull him out of the focus of his obsession. I wish it was something more worthy of attention than Pokemon but alas I cannot choose for him. What else can you recommend to help with this? It truly drives me crazy and makes me fearful for his future. I believe this is something he will battle his whole life. I pray, trust that the Holy Spirit is his teacher and continue to spread the feast for him. Is there anything else I can do?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 19, 2020 at 10:55 am

      I have been thinking about your comment. I wish I had a neat and tidy answer! I know you are praying, and that is always the main thing: begging God for wisdom when we know not what to do.

      I think there are different underlying causes for obsession. The obsessions found in ASD and 2e gifted kids can be hard to break or round out, I think, because they are so anxiety driven. You sound like you are already doing a very good job!

      I feel like if he were my son, I would explore how to minimize the *anxiety* instead of the obsession itself. I don’t mean I’d discontinue anything you’re already doing, but I think that when I took *further* action, that is the direction it would be in. Is it possible to completely resolve anxiety when it is biologically based like this? I don’t know. I do think it’s possible to ease it.

      We started with The Nemechek Protocol. We did that for a couple YEARS before I added anything else, and it was hugely helpful on its own. I think that might be a good starting place. Of course, sometimes the weighted-blanket, improve-their-sleep approach can feel like a miracle.

      Charlotte Mason talked in Home Education about creating the proper conditions for brain activity as part of education. She was talking about health food and clean air. In these modern times, I think those things still apply, but studying solutions for the specific children under our care also often becomes necessary as a real extension of that principle.

  • Reply tess May 18, 2020 at 11:20 am

    Good article— lots to think about. It occurs to me that our culture of expertise is, in a way, just putting lipstick on the pig of narrowmindedness…

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 18, 2020 at 11:30 am

      Ooh! That’s an interesting thought.

      We went to a new doctor on Monday. He’s an MD with post docs in homeopathy, Chinese medicine, and more. Fascinating guy. He asked me what I did and I thought explaining Scholé Sisters would be hard, but his face lit up as he said, “Oh! I got a minor in philosophy! I love Plato!” It was then that I realized why his waiting list is so many years long that he’s closed to new patients. The long and short of it is that he’s a good doctor BECAUSE he is magnanimous.

  • Reply Becky Aniol May 18, 2020 at 10:14 am

    When I read “magnanimity,” my mind immediately goes to my favorite passage in Abolition of Man, where Lewis says, “It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. . . . In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. . . . The head rules the belly through the chest–the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment–these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man” (24-25). CM hit on the key. It is indeed the RELATIONSHIP with knowledge–the daily enjoyment of the feast–that makes men WITH chests. That’s why a CM education fosters magnanimity so much more beautifully than any other philosophy I’ve seen–because she understood that mere syllogisms/facts will not develop a love relationship.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 18, 2020 at 10:25 am

      I love everything about this comment, and I had forgotten that passage from Abolition. Seems time to read it again! ♥

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