The first part of this discussion is here: Toward Understanding the Moral Imagination.
I started Vigen Guroian’s Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken the Child’s Moral Imagination, and wanted to pull together a post after reading the introduction and first chapter. I’m struggling to find the time to write it all out like I’d like to, so I’m simplifying and going for bullet points. At least then we can start talking! :) I’ll share what’s stuck out to me, and then I’d love to hear your thoughts, as well.
Let’s jump right in.
- Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced. Instead, a compelling version of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. (p. 20)
Here is where we clarify what we mean by developing the moral imagination, as opposed to character training. We don’t set out with a didactic goal to teach a child a specific moral or virtue. There is a time and place for that, perhaps, but the strength of the fairy tale resides in its ability to reach us at a depth that we can not otherwise teach to.
Guroian describes a person who knows what is right, intellectually, but whose moral imagination has not been sufficiently developed. That person may know that something is wrong to do, but he feels it is not so bad because he has been formed by the secular culture, which normalizes sin. His feelings will likely win out, because intellectual knowledge is easy to question.
He knows it is wrong to steal, for example, or to treat his girlfriend as his plaything instead of as a treasure, but he decides- with his intellect as his guide- that it can’t be as bad as he always thought. He reasons that his aversion to these behaviors are part of the lessons drilled into him during childhood. But now he is a man! He needs to think for himself! He doesn’t need childish rules and drills to guide his decisions- he must find his own way and be true to himself!
Compare this to a person who may or may not know, on an intellectual level, what is right, but who has been formed by great stories to understand the difference between right and wrong. He knows it because it is in his bones, not because he sat through a Sunday School lecture on the importance, say, of not stealing, or of living chastely. The fairy tales and classic stories his soul was nourished on tell him that it is not virtuous or honorable to take that which doesn’t belong to him. He is less likely to fall into those sins, then, even though he may never have been taught the “virtues” or “morals” like an ordinary Christian child who has heard countless lessons on moral living.
Because poetic knowledge trumps scientific knowledge. We can reason away anything we want, but the gut-level, deep-down, I-know-this-to-be-true-because-God’s-law-is-written-on-my-heart kind of knowing (that is, poetic knowledge), is much harder to shake or dismiss.
- The great fairy tales and fantasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, where characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong or heroes and villains must contest the very fate of imaginary worlds. (p. 18)
When these great stories have been inscribed on a child’s heart, they stay with him and guide him at a core level. They help him to recognize evil and wickedness and drive him to always seek Truth and goodness. He will recognize that Truth because God created all of us in His image, in order to love and serve him and to be happy with Him in Heaven. We are wired to be God-seekers. The stories we tell our children either nurture or hinder that natural longing.
- The [fairy tales] make us face the unvarnished truth about ourselves and compel us to consider what kind of people we want to be. (p. 20)
It is one thing to read a morality tale and ask the child which character he thinks he should try to emulate. Such a lesson will likely dull the child’s senses and be forgotten immediately, never to make a real impact on his life or his decisions. But to read a riveting account of St. George and the Dragon? To be swept away in the story- to thrill at the terror of the beast and the noble courage of the knight, who has promised to do what is right, regardless of the physical dangers to himself- that will stay with a young boy. That will nurture his soul toward virtue and honor and feed his God-given instinct to do what is right at all costs.
Fairy tales and classic stories are the most direct way to our hearts.
- Thus, while fairy tales are not a substitute for life experience, they have the great capacity to shape our moral constitution without the shortcomings of either rigidly dogmatic schooling or values-clarification education… Fairy tales say plainly that virtue and vice are opposites and not just a matter of degree. (p. 36)
So yeah. That. :)
- Values refers to ‘one’s standards, one’s judgement of what is valuable or important in life’… as a society, we are learning to regard morality and values as matters of taste and personal satisfaction. (p. 29)
It’s important for us to clarify what we mean by “values” and “virtues,” as they are not the same thing. Values are relative to circumstances; virtues, on the other hand, are universal. For example, tolerance is a value, and it is one that reigns supreme in secular character education today. But while it is good to be tolerant in some cases, it is not wise to be tolerant in all (abusive situations, for example, among many others). Tolerance itself is not a good thing; it is only good when exercised in the proper situation. So a value cannot be universally applied, because it is relative to circumstance.
Virtues, however, are universal. It is always and everywhere good to be full of courage and fortitude, and it is never virtuous to be cowardly. Regardless of the circumstances, the virtue remains True. Courage is good. Fortitude is good. Always. Every time.
One way to rapidly confuse young people is to interchange values and virtues, and unfortunately we do that all the time. When we confuse values and virtues as a matter of course, we end up with a whole lot of people who think that Truth itself is relative and who reject absolutes.
When we reject absolute Truth, we reject God Himself.
If you’ve read the first bit of Guroian’s book, I’d love to hear your thoughts. The combox is open and threaded. I’ll take down the word verification and see if we can sidestep the spammers this time around. If it gets really bad, I’ll put word verification back up.
My plan is to read the rest of the book and then host one final discussion so we can dig out the good stuff and help each other apply it in our homes. That post won’t go up for another few weeks, at least. I hope you’ll join us!