Do You Tell Stories?

Written by Dr. Julianne Cooper.

Did you ever sit through an ethics lesson where some open-ended problem was presented—the story of survivors in a sinking lifeboat comes to mind—and everybody had an opinion?  There was never any satisfactory resolution.  William Kilpatrick recently raised the issue in an article entitled ‘Storytelling and Virtue’ in a publication of the Heritage Foundation.  He points out the difference between presenting ethics through open-ended and unfinished dilemmas and teaching virtue by telling stories with a ‘moral- of-the-story’ ending.  Since the onset of the values clarification education model, story-telling as a means of transmitting virtue has fallen out of favor.  But, why?

Well, it goes along with political correctness and allowing young people to develop character on their own—without undue adult influences like morals and religion, to name a couple.  It also has to do with the decline of teaching history.  Finally, it has to do with this generation’s belief that we have nothing to teach.  Habits of moral character do not come naturally to children, they must be modeled and to do that we must believe in the traditions of hundreds of generations of moral development.  As C.S. Lewis said, moral education is “men transmitting manhood to men” or women to women if we are to be politically correct.  When we complain that we would never have behaved toward adults as our youth do, it may be because we have stopped teaching our moral traditions.

Returning to today’s dilemma-based ethics as opposed to traditional story-telling, Kilpatrick points out three major differences.  First, the players in the dilemma model have no delineated character.  They are just blanks.  Character is everything in the best traditional stories.  Another second difference is that in traditional stories, characters are tied to a network of relationships, to geography, to loyalties; not so in modern ethics where the figures have no history.  Finally, the modern dilemmas have no endings.  There is no ‘moral-to-the-story.’  There is nothing to learn from the new model except that life is just a series of actions rooted in a rational process.

At Liberty Harbor we believe that well-educated adults have a wealth of traditional wisdom gleaned from thousands of years accumulation.  We believe that the old stories served well to transmit moral character to youth yesterday and are just as valid today.  That’s why reading the Bible, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Shakespeare, and the rest of the traditional canon is so important for the development of our students.  But there is one other aspect of the old stories that goes way beyond teaching morals, they teach a vision of the world and a way of life steeped in virtue.  We follow the hero of the story to see if he will be tempted to give up his virtuous quest for some momentary desire.  Ulysses turns away from his goal again and again, yet in the end he finds his way home to his ever-so-patient wife and grown son.  As Kilpatrick says:

If we wish our children to grow up with a deep and adequate vision of life, we must provide a rich fund for them to draw on.

Virtue, in the classical meaning, was the power you achieved when you move from the male animal to the human man as he would be if he reached his potential.  (I am writing in the classical mode here, it is not PC.)  Acquiring virtue is a lifelong exercise for each of us.  Male and female. For the ancient Greek it came through self-discipline; for the Christian by grace from the Holy Spirit.  The Western canon is a vehicle through which we transmit and preserve our civilization.  It does not happen naturally, we must teach each generation anew.  Liberty Harbor Academy and schools like it may be bailing out the lifeboat with the ethics-dilemma survivors, but we have something they do not have, hundreds of cultural life vests embodied in our stories.  So start now and keep going.

“Once upon a time…”

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