On Teaching the Virtues through Literature

Education, to be real education, must train both the minds and the characters of students. But how can we teach young people to be virtuous? Setting an example is the first step, but at some point the virtues must be explained and defended. This is a very difficult thing to do well: we run the risk of sounding preachy, or making students think that virtue is something adults came up with to make children behave. How can we explain virtue in a way that teaches students to love it?

Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classical Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination, a book by Vigen Guroian, explores how literature can help us train students in virtue. Here’s an excerpt:

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 for this kind of moral education—that is the education of character.
The Greek word for character literally means an impression. Moral character is an impression stamped upon the self. Character is defined by its orientation, consistency, and constancy. Today we often equate freedom with morality and goodness. But this is naive because freedom is transcendent and the precondition of choice itself. Depending upon one’s character, an individual will be drawn toward either goodness or wickedness. Moral and immoral behavior is freedom enacted for good or ill.

Guroian goes on to explain how stories like The Wind in the Willows, The Princess and the Goblin, Charlotte’s Web, and The Velveteen Rabbit teach us how to think about friendship, good and evil, courage, and love by showing, not talking down or preaching. If you are looking for things to read at home with Kindergarten-5th grade children, these books would be a great place to start.