We are all patchwork, and of such an unformed and diverse composition that each part, each moment, plays its role. And one finds as much difference between us and ourselves, as between us and others. Montaigne
A twelve-year-old student had been bullying a younger boy on the school bus. When confronted with his bullying, he dissolved into tears and said it was not fair that only he was being blamed for something others also did. I recounted this story to a colleague, who commented,“So it’s just a front, then.” But was the boy basically a bully putting on a vulnerable exterior, or basically a softie putting on a tough exterior? Which statement depicts his ‘true’ character?
Is there such a thing as the real person, fixed in orientation to the world?
We do observe quite predictable patterns of behaviour in adults. We experience personalities that are essentially cautious, uptight, bristly, gentle, angry, humorous, preachy! Children too seem to possess essential personality traits, even though our descriptions of them (compared to adults) may seem more fluid. We teachers are often struck by how closely our perceptions of individual children agree. Images certainly have the potential to be rigid, but it is interesting that our images of the basic constitution of a person can concur. More often than not, we see stability over the years in children’s personalities. Often we despair that there has been no change in dysfunctional traits such as one child’s resistance to work or another’s aggressive tendencies.
Moreover, we seem to like our images of people and seek confirmation of them, both from their actions, and from others’ descriptions. Even when children display inconsistencies, we look for the ‘real’ person underneath it all. We look for consistency and neatness to explain the situation. So when a child is a bully on the bus, but kind and helpful in class, we struggle to pigeonhole him, to settle on the final explanation. He’s essentially X, but at times some factor Y makes him behave in uncharacteristic ways.
How did this ‘real person’ emerge?
Adults certainly seem to display full-blown personalities, but where did these come from? Developmental psychologists have long been interested in the question of temperament. Temperament has two aspects—it is thought to be genetically influenced (even newborns have recognizable temperaments), and there are differences among newborns on temperamental dimensions. All babies show attachment to their caregivers, so that is not an example of temperament. But some babies are more active than others, or some babies show more negative emotion than others—these are examples of temperament. There seems to be something inevitable (biological) about these early differences. However, very quickly the environment begins to act on, and be acted upon by the newborn’s temperamental qualities. As the years roll by, human interactive processes can channel a few basic temperaments into a variety of colourful personalities! Temperament evolves into personality along pathways that now seem much less inevitable, and also much more sensitive to context. That is, our behaviour is not always the same across different situations. Yet repeating patterns of responding do exist, because both genetic and environmental forces condition us to behave in habitual ways. No wonder we are tempted to, and yet find it difficult to, peg our twelve-year-old bully (or is it softie?).
Early personality is soon recognized, described and amplified by others in the child’s environment. We may not see it, but we are forming our own and each others’ personalities in subtle and ongoing ways: in community life, in families, in offices, in intimate relationships. In her ways of reacting to a parent, a child fashions her life along a certain trajectory. If her family’s politics are conservative, she may create for herself a radical personality. Conversely, another child may be broadly shaped in line with family beliefs. A father’s anxiety may be heightened by a child’s rebelliousness, but the way he responds only increases the rebellion and therefore his own anxiety. Or a child’s rebelliousness may lead the parent to give in, with different consequences for both personalities!
The picture of personality formation gets more complex and interesting as we move further and further away from the newborn with its simple temperamental tendencies. A peer group, a romantic interest, a hobby, a cultivated eccentricity, a talent—there are many arenas in which personality is formed. We adopt an interest, and want it to endure and define who we are. It makes us feel comfortable to be describable. ‘I am not like that’, ‘I hate pink’ and ‘My favourite actor is so and so’. We can become obsessed with these markers of personality.
Society certainly encourages us to do conscious self-definition. Today this is true for certain sections in society, but the trend will doubtless extend eventually to many other social groups. What is common to all of us, regardless of our social position, is the urge to develop a story of ourselves in which we are the heroes. This narrative of uniqueness is enthusiastically encouraged at every turn by our contemporary social environments. We are constantly building, tweaking, communicating and acting out our narratives. Children’s rooms (and adults’ homes!) are decorated with their thoughts of who they are and who they want to be seen as. Advertisements seek to appeal to our sense of ourselves through what we choose to buy, ‘Express Yourself through our product’, they tell us. Virtually any aspect of daily life can become the theatre of our personality.
Increasingly, there is a feeling that developing this personality is the key to success or happiness. An online search of the phrase ‘personality development workshop’ yields almost a million results. Catch phrases include ‘a better understanding of your personality’, ‘become a better person’, ‘discover yourself ’, all of which will ‘help further shape your personality, to make a bigger mark’.
What relationship does education have with the development of personality?
For the purpose of this article, we are not looking at the skill- and knowledge-building aspects of education, but rather the way education impacts personality. A significant amount of teacher energy goes into moulding students’ personalities, fixing the little flaws, changing the person into a more ‘manageable type’. None of this is a part of the organized curriculum, but there is something about bringing many children into one space that triggers our impulse to control and contain. Thus in most schools, a certain kind of personality is rewarded—the obedient, polite and hardworking child. The urge to respect authority is inculcated, but so too is ambition and looking out for oneself. In socalled ‘alternative’ schools, the attempt may be quite different—to nurture kindness, sensitivity, responsibility. But if the struggle for the student then becomes to define herself as kind, sensitive and responsible, doesn’t that too turn into a kind of personality development?
In contrast, in some circles of ‘child-centred’ education, it is almost obligatory to celebrate the unique personhood of each child! The idea seems to be to encourage personality formation, to reinforce small tendencies in children. In cultivating strong declared likes, dislikes, favourites and idiosyncrasies, a stronger personality emerges. The phrase ‘individual attention’ is often used these days to characterize this kind of education. Many parents instinctively feel this will be good for their child, in contrast to the assembly-line approach of traditional education, and schools accordingly advertise themselves in this vein. Students certainly seem to reap some positive benefits from this approach. They feel special, and this may lead to increased motivation and eventual success. They can take control of a specific facet of their lives—becoming part of a musical sub-culture, for example—and sustaining it to feel secure.
Whatever the educational thrust, it seems important to pay closer attention to the process of personality formation. It seems an essentially benign process, but the darker undertones emerge just beneath the surface. Catering to personality nourishes the ego and justifies an outlook that is already essentially self-centred. There can be a profound disregard of others and the ways in which ‘we’ are actually formed by many threads of life. There is the additional bias, that our inner package of self-images is justified—in other words, we always have excellent reasons for why we are the way we are! Sustaining a personality takes an energy that can become all-absorbing. There can be a diminished capacity to appreciate the bigger picture as the person grows up, when the person is geared towards ‘my’ particular outlook. If billions of humans approach their inner and outer worlds in this fashion (as is certainly the case), the capacity for living lightly with a sense of freedom from the tyranny of the self is massively crippled. The personal, social and ecological consequences of this self-absorption are terrifyingly selfevident across the planet.
There is another way to look at this whole question of personality. There is the fact that our psychological lives are shared across all humanity; we are not uniquely trapped within our minds. A deeper reality connects us all, humans and all other life forms. As many mystics have observed, we are essentially empty and free within. Upon this emptiness is the construction of our seemingly separate identities. As for the personalities we experience in each other, just because a person’s behaviour is repetitive and predictable does not imply that there is ‘someone inside’. In the light of all this, how are we to live and work with the young entrusted to us, and also with each other?
As we have seen, the child certainly comes to us with some tendencies and dispositional habits. We will soon recognize these as patterns of responding to situations in school. The way we respond, in turn, could potentially crystallize these habits, so we need to watch this process of solidification. Very soon, we will begin to describe the child to each other, to her parents, to herself. We write long, descriptive reports of the child each year—these are helpful and insightful, but how can we ensure that they do not become rigidly limiting? We have to respond to situations afresh, watching the need to fix the child as being one way or another. Can we, as learning communities of adults and students, experiment with both temperament and personality, not pushing for a continuing narrative of self-definition? By watching ourselves, by being curious about the formation of identity, by wordlessly questioning our assumptions regarding this matter, we lighten the energy of selfoccupation that personalities generate. The personality can be seen as rising and falling naturally, fading and swelling, as do the sights, sounds and smells of daily life, without a centralizing power and without the need to control the process of living. As the child grows older and more self-aware, we could invite her to watch the need to feed the personality as it arises and to remain interested in the question of the essential unreality of the self.
One must clearly understand that the narrating self is none other than the narrated stories. Apart from the stories there is nothing. Or rather, no one […] Most people find that a shocking assertion. I’ve never understood why. I find it quite pleasant that that’s how it is. Somehow […] liberating. Pascal Mercier