Monday, September 5, 2022

Teaching Virtue With Books

 From The Imaginative Conservative:

Many Millennials and Gen-Zers today are malformed by the hollow icon of the “unique individual,” building his/her/their/zer celebrity personality, even moment to moment, with no purpose, no obligations, no meaning. This is not a happy place. These kids had a natural hunger for a vision of human excellence, and that appetite was left starving, by failed parenting and a psychotic educational ideology. In any normal family—any adequately healthy family that perseveres in “showing up”—the child’s model of adulthood is framed by mom and dad. Kids’ developing image of adulthood therefore implicitly includes the frame of parenthood, but this assumption remains unexamined until adulthood (and may remain unexamined even then) because it’s simply too scary for completely helpless kids. Sadly, these days, it now remains too scary for too many young adults.

(Parenthetically, we are now seeing young couples, deprived of adult models in their childhood, valiantly building new families from the ground up, “by the book,” deliberately making up for their own parental deprivation with manuals and mentors. This is a truly heroic hope for the future, proof of the durability of human nature, and a confirmation of Classical “teleology.” It’s also an opportunity, for those of us blessed with families, to assist in remedial education, including the recovery of classic children’s books. Just as elderly stroke victims can recover their motor skills with infantile crawling and crayons, young parents are recovering their own nurturing by parenting with Beatrix Potter, Kate Greenaway and Rudyard Kipling.)

Which brings us (finally!) to the use of books in teaching virtue. For many kids, the first characters they encounter as characters are A. A. Milne’s phlegmatic Pooh, melancholic Eeyore, sanguine Tigger, and pedantic Owl. They see these characters replayed in their families and friends. These whole characters are knit into the “fabric of the mind” by means of concrete images. Yet even the fictional Pooh and watchful Christopher Robin are “whole people,” and therefore always a little mysterious. Even a minimal effort to draw out the mysteries of their characters can move kids past the simple plot. So, when Pooh is stuck in the door of his tree, “Is Pooh Bear really scared?” Is Pooh being brave? Or does he love his honey more than he worries about being stuck?

In my personal favorite, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, the characters are fuller and less simply iconic, so the contrasts they provide are almost as evocative as our real-life friends. “How are Ratty and Mole so different, yet friends?” Does Ratty enjoy showing Mole new experiences, like “messing about in boats?” Ratty always messed about in boats, so it’s nothing new for him. Does sharing boating with his new friend make him happy? Is sharing boats like sharing cookies? And maybe a caution: Should we always let friends show us new things?

The point is not to turn Wind in the Willows into a Socratic seminar. We simply need a change of emphasis, wondering about characters, rather than capturing plots. In doing so, the mystery of the same-but-different humanity emerges. So, the shy Mole has been enjoying an adventurous new life with boisterous Ratty, living all summer at Ratty’s river-bank burrow. Then, late one snowy evening, returning from an adventure in the Wild Wood, Mole suddenly catches scent of his own beloved, but long-abandoned burrow. Or rather, the scent of Home seizes him, violently. Now, at this point, no retelling this story could do it justice, so let’s just say that the grand themes of the love of home, and the tension between home and friendship, are laid most beautifully in our laps. People (even burrowing people) are all the same, yet different. No two characters could be more different than Homer’s adventurous Odysseus and Grahame’s retiring Mole, yet they would sympathize with each other’s love of home. (Read more.)


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