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It Takes a Pirate to Raise a Child
Great children’s literature does more than the most cutting-edge program for “character education.”

Illustration from Treasure Island book cover

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Editor’s note: The following address was delivered at Hillsdale College as the 2013 Fall Convocation Lecture.

Last July, the Coupland family spent a weekend in Canada. On our return trip, we entered the U.S. by means of the bridge that spans the Detroit River. The 15 minutes of waiting on the immigration line gave plenty of opportunity for my three children to ask a variety of unwelcome questions, such as, “Dad, why we can’t we bring fruit into our own country?”

Our middle child got to ask the final question before we pulled up to the border-security booth. “Dad,” she asked, “are you nervous?”

I had just enough time to provide — flawlessly, I might add — the standard parent answer: “Honey,” I said confidently, “we don’t need to be nervous, because we haven’t done anything wrong.”

But oddly, I was a little nervous, as I pulled up to the booth and delivered the most sincere “Hello” that I could muster. I suppose I was hoping that my sincerity would work as well as a Star Wars Jedi mind trick: “We are not the terrorists you are looking for.” In retrospect, I realize that it just sounded creepy.

“Where are you from?” the border agent asked.

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“Hillsdale,” I replied and quietly hoped that he was one of the 2.6 million Imprimis readers.

“What do you do?” he quickly added as he typed away on his computer and flipped through our paperwork.

“I am a college professor,” I said. He raised his eyebrows and gave an ever-so-slight nod of the head, a sign that I interpreted to mean he was impressed.

I was thrilled by this sign of affirmation, and I sat up a little straighter in my seat basking in my newfound credibility. Assuming the interrogation was over, I even allowed myself to guess what the agent was thinking. He might be thinking that he was talking to a future winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry or economics. My brief daydream was punctured when he asked his next question. Anyone not consumed with pride would have anticipated it: “So, what do you teach?”

Desperately grasping onto my perceived credibility, my first thought was to say, “Um, are we done here?” I wisely did not deliver this line, realizing that this would have been the quickest route to the longest border crossing in Coupland family history.

“English grammar,” I said sheepishly. He looked a little puzzled, as if to say, “Wait — I thought you said you were a college professor.” Desperately seeking to regain the credibility that I had lost so suddenly, I blurted out, “Oh, and children’s literature.” My voice trailed a little as I realized that this additional bit of evidence would not restore the Nobel Prize that had been mine only moments before.

“Thank you,” he said without an ounce of sincerity. “You can go,” he added — most likely because he believed that any grown man who readily admits to specializing in — or even reading — children’s literature cannot possibly be a threat to these United States.

If I had had more time at the border crossing (a thought that I admit sounds quite ridiculous), I would have brought up great men who recognized the importance and beauty of well-written children’s stories. Men like Russell Kirk, who read great works of children’s fiction throughout his life and, at the end of that life, requested that his family read to him the fairy tales of George MacDonald, Hans Christian Andersen, and others. Or G. K. Chesterton, who referred to the stories of the Brothers Grimm as both “splendid” and “satisfying.” Or C. S. Lewis, who not only wrote children’s stories, but also read these stories as an adult. In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis says, “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am 50 I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

These men of letters also recognized the power of children’s literature to be much more than great stories. These tales of fantasy and adventure are an inheritance that provides concrete images of goodness and evil — often in vivid blacks and whites — to the still receptive minds of the young. Over time, these images become patterns, and the patterns become habits, and the habits become our way of looking at reality. Children need these sharp distinctions to navigate in a morally confusing world.

Many modern educators see character education as something very different from what I have just described. Early in my tenure at Hillsdale, a group of educators approached our department about a partnership to develop a “character education” program for students and future teachers. The group’s presentation was polished and professional. These educators had compiled the latest techniques supported by the latest research and had developed a cutting-edge program.

For a variety of reasons, we decided not to partner with this group. Most importantly, it was obvious to us that we did not share a common understanding about cultivating “character.” For us the issue of “character education” goes much deeper than the latest “techniques.” Character education is really about cultivating the moral imagination, a process that takes time, patience, and the right kinds of experiences.

In his book Tending the Heart of Virtue, Vigen Guroian describes the moral imagination this way:

The moral imagination is not a thing, not even so much a faculty, as the very process by which the self makes metaphors out of images given by experience and then employs these metaphors to find and suppose moral correspondences in experience. . . . The richness or the poverty of the moral imagination depends on the richness or the poverty of experience.

But can’t we just explain virtuous behavior? Guroian says no.

Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture its 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.

Guroian then makes a compelling case for cultivating the moral imagination through children’s literature.

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.

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.

The reference to Edmund hit my son in a very deep place in his heart, which only stories can reach. The foundation for that moment — and many others that are still to come — was laid over countless hours and countless pages, a foundation that is still being laid today.

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.

One day, many of you will become parents. Do not forget to cultivate and guard your children’s moral imagination. Read them great stories of princesses and pirates, of dragons and dwarfs, of monsters and mermaids. Give them the experiences they need to navigate the moral pitfalls of their lives. Or as Lewis says, “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

— Daniel B. Coupland is an associate professor of education at Hillsdale College.



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