“Awakening the Moral Imagination”

“Awakening the Moral Imagination”

Pulled from my drafts folder. I’ve been meaning to post this for a while; but have been busy with other things and hadn’t got around to finding pull quotes.

I found this excellent article called Awakening the Moral Imagination: Teaching Virtues Through Fairy Tales by Vigen Guroian via The Common Room blog and have been slowly working my way through it. Rich stuff, lots to chew on. I think I’m going to have to obtain copies of some of Guroian’s books because it seems they’re just what I’m looking for.

When I read Michael O’Brien’s critique of children’s literature, Landscape with Dragons, I thought it was flawed, but interesting and useful. One of the things that bugged me, though I haven’t been able to articulate it until now, is that it is by and large a negative work, a reaction against what O’Brien doesn’t like, what he thinks deforms the imagination and poses a danger to children. But what O’Brien’s book lacks is what Guroian seems to supply here, a positive approach to the same question, a theory of the way in which good stories, and especially fairy tales and fantasy, develop and strengthen the moral imagination.  (The other problem is that it seems more rooted in O’Brien’s personal tastes than in the history of the teachings of the Church. For example, the Church has not always seen dragons as an unalloyed evil as O’Brien seems to.)

There is so much good material in this article I hardly know how to pull out my favorite quotes; but here are a few (well, more than a few) to whet your appetite.

. . . Moral living is about being responsive and responsible toward other people. And virtues are those traits of character that enable persons to use their freedom in morally responsible ways. The mere ability, however, to use moral principles to justify one’s actions does not make a virtuous person. The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber tells the story of how he fell into “the fatal mistake of giving instruction in ethics” by presenting ethics as formal rules and principles. Buber discovered that very little of this kind of education gets “transformed into character-building substance.” In his little gem of moral and educational philosophy, an essay appropriately entitled “The Education of Character,” Buber recalls: “I try to explain to my pupils that envy is despicable, and at once I feel the secret resistance of those who are poorer than their comrades. I try to explain that it is wicked to bully the weak, and at once I see a suppressed smile on the lips of the strong. I try to explain that lying destroys life, and something frightful happens: the worst habitual liar of the class produces a brilliant essay on the destructive power of lying.”(7)

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 vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. A good moral education addresses both the cognitive and affective dimensions of human nature. Stories are an irreplaceable medium of this kind of moral education. This is the education of character. . . .

. . . .“Values” is the chief buzz-word of the contemporary educational scene. The word carries with it the full burden of our concerns over the decline of morality. Teaching value, whether family values, democratic values, or religious values, is touted as the remedy for our moral confusion. Of course, this consensus about the need for stronger moral values immediately cracks and advocates retreat when the inevitable question is raised as to which values should be taught. I do not think that the current debate over values lends much promise of clarifying what we believe in or what morality we should be teaching our children. Values certainly are not the answer to moral relativism. Quite to the contrary, values talk is entirely amenable to moral relativism.

In her book, The Demoralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, Gertrude Himmelfarb exposes what some students of Western morals have known all along, that values is a rather new term in our moral vocabulary. Its history reaches back not much farther than the late nineteenth century. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche seems to have been the inventor of our modern use of the term as a category of morality. Nietzsche was opposed to what he called “effeminate” Christianity and advocated the “Ubermensch” or superior human being with the courage to defy conventional religious morality and invent his own values. In his famous essay entitled Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche used values in this new way, not as a verb meaning to value or esteem some thing, nor as a singular noun, meaning the measure of a thing (the economic value of money, labor, or property), but in the plural, connoting the moral beliefs and attitudes of a society or of the individual.(9) In his turn of the phrase “transvaluation of values,” Nietzsche summed up his thesis about the “death of God” and the birth of his new “noble type of man.” Nietzsche described this new kind of human being as “a determiner of [his own] values” who judges right from wrong upon the basis of what is good or injurious to himself. Thus the values of conventional morality were false values bound to be replaced by the self made values of the truly autonomous and free individual. . . .

. . . Modern educators have not been well disposed toward traditional fairy tales and their like. They write them off as too violent or not contemporary enough and so forth and so on. They favor “practical” and “realistic” stories � stories about the lives children live today that easily lend themselves to distillation into useful themes, principles, and values. What some educators can’t find they create. Off of the pens of values text book writers, stories spill whose sole purpose is to clarify so-called moral problems or “draw out” reasons for making intelligent moral decisions. These stories are of the disposable kind, made to be discarded like empty cartoons once the important “stuff’ that has been packed in them has been extracted. Teaching reasoning skills, not the virtues, is considered the means to a moral education; values-clarification, not character, is regarded as the goal.

These educators think that moral education is like teaching children reading or arithmetic. But that is not quite accurate, because in the case of moral education children are supposed to be permitted to discover and clarify for themselves their own values and personal moral stance in the world. Yet we do not permit children to invent their own math: we teach them the multiplication tables; nor do we encourage children to make up their own personal alphabets: we teach them how to read. What might one suppose would be the outcome of an education that did permit children to invent their own alphabets and math? No doubt the result would be confusion or chaos. Ought we to be surprised at the outcome of our recent efforts to help children clarify their own values, in point of fact invent their own personal moralities? . . .

. . . Fairy tale and modern fantasy stories project fantastic other worlds; but they also pay close attention to real moral “laws” of character and virtue. These laws ought not to be high-handedly shoved down the throats of children (or of anyone else). More accurately, they are norms of behavior that obtain in patterns of relation between agent, act, other, and world. Rational cognition is capable of grasping these norms. They become habit, however, only when they are lived, or, as in the case of fairy tales, experienced vicariously and imaginatively through the artful delineation of character and plot in story. 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. . . .


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