by Jenny Martin
Once a month the Anthem staff meet together for a reading group. We discuss excerpts from great works of the Western Canon or works that discuss classical education. Recently we studied an excerpt from Vigen Guroian’s Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination.” In the excerpt, Guroian discusses how fairy tales and stories of fantasy can instill virtue in children organically. Rather than the teacher devising a lesson on virtue and then telling the children to be virtuous, a story about good and evil helps a child to wrestle with these themes from a safe distance. Our kindergarten, first, and second grade students have been studying fairy tales and fables, such as Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. Our fourth and fifth graders recently finished The Hobbit. In all these works, there is a clear depiction of good characters and evil characters, which is why a fairy tale or a fantasy story works so well for teaching virtue to children.
For example, children who read Cinderella are able to discuss the difference between families who are kind and families who are spiteful. Children who read Beauty and the Beast can learn that the main character Beauty is named so, not because she is physically more beautiful than her sisters, but because she is beautiful on the inside. Because of her inner beauty, she is the only one who can see the Beast’s inner beauty while looking past his outward appearance. Through this tale, students learn that beauty of the soul matters more than beauty of the body. Giving our children these concrete yet imaginative examples of good and evil can help our children order their souls to goodness and truth.
How Does Anthem Teach Virtues Through Stories?
1.) Conversations! We ask questions about the choices characters make, and we discuss whether those choices were wise or misguided. So much of our literature, history, and Bible classes focus on lively discussion. This is why parents may not see much coming home in these classes. A good discussion on virtue and vice is far more beneficial to our students than countless worksheets about the story’s plot.
2.) We explicitly use the word virtue not values. Guroian argues that values are specific to certain people. Think about family values. Family values may change over time. Virtues, however, are universal. They have remained the same through various cultures and for thousands of years and, as Guroian says, are “founded and rooted in a permanent Good, in a higher moral law, or in the being of God.”
How Can You Encourage Stories of Virtue at Home?
1.) Ask your children questions about character choices when you read at home. Ask them questions like, “Do you think a different character would have made the same choice as our hero? Why?” Or “How is this character heroic? What does it mean to be heroic?” Be careful not to make everything into a moral lesson. Children will see through the ploy quite easily. But when a virtue or vice comes up organically in a story, stop and talk with your children about what you notice.
2.) Use movies, commercials, or songs to have conversations about virtue.
3.) Look at book illustrations together and ask your children why they think the author portrayed a certain character the way he or she did.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of the dragon. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of the dragon. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
We live in a broken world. Children know that evil and vice exist, especially children who have learned the story of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. What we want them to remember is that they have the courage to stand up to evil. We want them to do hard and virtuous things.
Guroian, Vigen. Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination. Oxford University Press, 1998.