Friday, October 18, 2013

Book Review: Tending the Heart of Virtue

Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination
by Vigen Guroian

This book begins by arguing that contemporary American society is neglecting to teach children virtues. Then the author argues that fairy tales offer the perfect model for teaching these neglected virtues.
The great fairy tales and fantasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, where characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong or heroes and villains contest the very fate of imaginary worlds.
These stories provide a way for children to see how virtues like honesty and self-sacrifice play out in an imaginary world, with consequences that affirm the virtuous and, often, punish those who are less so.
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.
Later, he says:
Much of what passes for moral education fails to nurture the moral imagination. Yet, only a pedagogy that awakens and enlivens the moral imagination will persuade the child or the student that courage is the ultimate test of good character, that honesty is essential for trust and harmony among persons, and that humility and a magnanimous spirit are good greater than the prizes won by selfishness, pride, or the unscrupulous exercise of position and power. 
Once the author has established that virtues are necessary and not currently taught in a reliable way, he continues by providing examples from specific fairy tales and other classic stories like Bambi and Pinocchio.

With quotes of C.S. Lewis and Josef Pieper, this book fits well with the thoughts and philosophy of Poetic Knowledge. I didn't agree with all of his selections (Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon is one I refuse to share with the children, given the disparaging depiction of St. George), but overall I thought this book presented a good argument for reading fairy tales, even those that may seem harsh to our modern parent ears, to our children and providing them with the opportunity to discuss the actions of the characters within them. While only a relatively small number of tales are discussed in depth, the ideas can be generalized to many fairy tales.

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