Tending the Heart of Virtue
This BreakPoint commentary was first published in June, 1999.
When Vigen Guroian set out to teach a class on children's literature to his undergraduate students at Loyola College in Maryland, he invited his daughter's fourth-grade class in for some discussion. But after talking about Pinocchio, the undergrads were shocked and embarrassed to find that the fourth-graders had understood the book better than they had. Why was that?
The answer, Guroian says, is that we have neglected the development of the moral imagination. The college students literally were less capable of understanding the moral themes in the story of Pinocchio than were the kids.
As Guroian writes in his book, Tending the Heart of Virtue, the undergrads noticed that the fourth-graders were better at grasping “the nature and source of Pinocchio’s temptations and backsliding, and they were less ready to excuse him for the behavior that got him into so much trouble and caused his father such grief.”
His students even began to suspect that “maybe they had lost something in growing up—a sense of wonder that might have been better tended and retained” if they had been brought up reading books like Pinocchio.
“Perhaps,” Guroian concludes, “the fourth graders that they had met were actually nearer than they were to the wellsprings of human morality and were better served by reading Pinocchio than they had been by taking a required college course in ethics.”
Guroian’s book is subtitled, How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination, and in it he explains that children are born with a strong moral sense. They always want to know if a character in a story is good or bad. “This need to make moral distinctions,” he says, "is a gift, a grace, that human beings are given at the start of their lives.” But it is a gift that needs to be cultivated or it will atrophy and disappear.
And that’s exactly what’s happening, as Guroian’s experience with college students has proved. “Our society,” Guroian warns, “is embracing an anti-human trinity of pragmatism, subjectivism, and cultural relativism that denies the existence of a moral sense or a moral law.” And in this intellectual climate, the moral imagination is being starved.
One of the best remedies for this can be found in classic children’s literature. Moral education is best accomplished through stories, through depictions of courage and the other virtues, showing what they look like in action. A classic story like Pinocchio or Peter Pan or the Velveteen Rabbit communicates vital truths about what it is to be human. It teaches us what bravery is, how to resist temptation, how to practice love and self-sacrifice. A dry course on ethics simply cannot begin to bring these themes to life in the same way.
Why not pick up a copy of Guroian’s Tending the Heart of Virtue. Reacquaint yourself with classic children’s literature and read it to your children or your grandchildren. Who knows? If you start early enough, by the time they're in college—even the most secular one imaginable—they just might graduate with as much moral discernment as they had when they were in the fourth grade.
What does Chuck mean by “moral discernment”? Ask a few of your Christian friends to define that term. Then ask them how Christians can improve in this area. How would you rate your ability to exercise moral discernment.
Get a copy of the book, Tending the Heart of Virtue, from our online store. To learn more about “chestless men,” read the article, “C. S. Lewis on Chestless Men,” by Dr. Benjamin Wiker.