Imagination And Virtue
Religion & Liberty Online

Imagination And Virtue

Anne got her best friend, Diana, drunk. Sick-drunk. Neither was old enough to drink, and Anne didn’t really mean to, but…there it was. Diana’s mother was horrified, and forbade the friendship to go on. Anne was crushed. She really had made a mistake: what she thought was a cordial was wine. It was a hard lesson.

If you ever read Anne of Green Gables, you know this story. Things get set aright – partly by the adults, and partly by Anne. She learned a very hard lesson – and so did I. Anne’s mistake and her tenacity in fighting for the friendship gave me much food for thought, in a book I’ve read time and again since my childhood.

Daniel B. Coupland, an associate professor of education at Hillsdale College, knows that “children’s” stories hold sway in the world of morality. Oh, we don’t need cloying stories that tell children, “do this” and “don’t do that.” No, good literature helps children form imagination and morality without shoving it down their throats.

The best way to begin the cultivation of moral character is to immerse children in great stories where virtues are rendered attractive — not in a sticky-sweet or preachy sort of way, but in a way that captures and feeds their imagination.

Because this cultivation takes both time and patience, we rarely get to see this played out in obvious ways. But sometimes we do. My son likes to tease his two younger sisters. Often this teasing is quite harmless, but sometimes it goes too far. After one such incident, I had to deal with my son and his lack of kindness toward his sisters. Trying to be a good parent, I talked with him about the importance of being kind. After presenting my airtight argument on the Christian virtue of charity, I looked into my son’s eyes and recognized that — although he had heard every word — he wasn’t buying it. I sat there for a moment reviewing my closing remarks in my mind, looking for a misplaced modifier or something else that could have weakened the logic of my case. And then, in a rare moment of inspiration, I looked at him and said, “Son, you’re being an Edmund.”

Almost immediately, his shoulders slouched, and he let out a long breath. He had recognized the name of the youngest Pevensie boy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. My son didn’t like being told that he was acting like the pesky and traitorous Edmund. He would have preferred to be compared to older brother Peter. Sir Peter, the wolf slayer. High King Peter, the Magnificent.

Think of the great literature you read as a child: C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Tortoise and The Hare. They entertained us, but they taught us as well, in a way nothing else can: through our imaginations. Coupland concludes:

If you have a well-developed moral imagination, then most likely you had parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and teachers who filled your early life with images and experiences that established the right kinds of patterns in your life. These images turned into habits, and the habits into desires, and these desires now dictate the way that you perceive the world around you.

With the holidays right around the corner, consider giving the gift of imagination to a child in your life. The benefits will go far beyond the entertainment of a good story.

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Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.