Politics & Policy

He’s Such a Character

Harry Potter, Elizabeth Bennet, and moral education.

“There are dark days ahead, Harry,” says Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor and the avuncular headmaster of Hogwart’s Academy at the end of the recently released film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, “days when we will be forced to choose between what is right and what is easy.” One of the most magical things about J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and now films, the last two of which have been just splendid, is the way they subtly weave lessons about ethical choice and character into their gripping plots. Indeed, the plots themselves pivot on the crucial choices of the major characters for good or for evil, choices that at once form and reveal character.

Attention to moments of choice and to the development of character, for example, in the latest Potter film and in the wonderful film version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, can help to educate the moral imagination of young and old alike. As Karen Bohlin, a senior scholar at the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, urges in her new book Teaching Character Education Through Literature: Awakening the Moral Imagination in Secondary Classrooms the challenge for parents and educators is to “mitigate the range of negative narrative images and stimuli that feed the imaginations and aspirations of young people.” The real danger in our culture is that many children grow up in a moral and spiritual vacuum into which the worst of Hollywood popular culture–film, music, and video games–marches to set up its own pedagogy, which atrophies the moral imagination and deforms desire.

Now, it is true that as practice in many schools character education is no more than a fad, deployed as a quick fix for rising violence, promiscuity, drug use, and incivility that afflict our youth. A scholar and secondary-school administrator at the Boston’s Montrose School, Bohlin is acutely aware that much that passes for character education never transcends “simplistic slogans.” Schools promote virtues the way Baskin-Robbins sells its flavor of the week, with posters of nice kids being nice to other nice kids. This is the sort of insubstantial rot through which young people see very quickly; it is, I would contend, one of the motives for rebellion among perceptive, slightly disaffected kids who yearn for something more than the latest superficial pitch from adults.

Of course, the very idea that the burden for character education would fall mainly upon schools is itself part of the problem. Except indirectly through its insistence upon responsible behavior and habits of hard work and truthfulness, schools aim primarily at the education of the intellect, not the passions of the heart. As Aristotle warned long ago, in matters ethical we must be wary of taking refuge in theory. We become virtuous not by thinking or arguing about virtue, but by doing, by the repetitious performance of virtuous acts. Aristotle compares education in virtue to the way in which we learn to play a musical instrument, become a competitive gymnast, or an excellent point guard.

Awakening the Moral Imagination

But of course becoming virtuous involves more than rote, mindless action. It involves a cultivated moral imagination. This is precisely where Bohlin thinks schools can make a contribution to character education. Her book is a wonderful guide, both to the theory of character education and to the practical way in which literature–she offers explications with discussion questions for a number of novels including Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice–can serve to awaken the moral imagination.

Bohlin’s treatment of Pride and Prejudice is deft and timely, with the release of the latest and perhaps finest film version of that marvelous novel. Indeed, both novel and film offer a corrective to an inordinately popular form of modern moral education–values clarification with its purported neutrality on the question of what is good. In the world of Jane Austen, ethics is largely about making judgments, about distinguishing between virtue and vice, between love and lust, between nobility and self-serving pride, between character and mere wealth or family lineage. In Pride and Prejudice, these issues play out most dramatically in the heart and mind of Elizabeth Bennet, whose confidence in her own superior judgment–and it is superior–is precisely what gets her into trouble. Her misjudgments are numerous and profound. As she comes to realize her multiple errors, she suffers “humiliation,” but she has the good sense, not to give up making judgments altogether, but to make an additional judgment, that she now suffers a “just humiliation.” The result is a development of Elizabeth’s character, not in the direction of neutrality or mere toleration, but toward a greater imaginative sympathy with the range of character types, with an expanded sense of the rich variety of ways in which the good can be realized.

One of the great advantages of Austen’s fiction is that it gives the lie to our feigned classlessness. In our public morality, we talk endlessly about treating everyone equally and about the unimportance of money and possessions. But we make judgments all the time about money, income, looks, clothes, and possessions–nowhere more so than in our schools. Austin takes these matters seriously, but, since she takes virtue more seriously, she offers what we now lack, namely, a vocabulary for success and character. Despite its Victorian fascination with formality, Austin’s world neatly dovetails with the world of contemporary teenagers. As Bohlin comments, “First impressions, battles of pride, the power of prejudice, pervasive gossip, and tensions between the genuine and the disingenuous in both friendship and romance are all quite real to” teenagers.

In fact, that’s not a bad description of the boarding-school social scene in Harry Potter. Critics have been agog about the latest installment being more adult, by which many seem to mean that hormones now figure importantly in the lives of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. But this only serves to heighten the significance of friendship, fidelity, truthfulness, and courage, on the one hand, and betrayal, disloyalty, deception, and cowardice, on the other. The latest film repeatedly makes an important point about the nature of courage. In the latest story, Harry is increasingly isolated, facing burdens that only he can bear even as he suffers the skeptical taunts of others, the suspicions of friends, and even self-doubt. In the midst of this, he is forced into direct confrontations with evil against he must leverage enormous skill and courage. Voldemort, Harry’s demonic nemesis, specializes in what appears to be courage: the powerful overcoming of obstacles and the ability to do without flinching what others fear. But if, as is true of Voldemort, we separate valor from the common good, from justice and friendship, then we are left with nihilism, the empty expression of power for its own sake–a position advocated explicitly by Voldemort in the first film.

To Voldemort’s duplicitous fear-mongering and intimidation, Dumbledore proposes truthfulness about the evils the children at his school will soon face. He also stresses the need for “fierce friendship,” accountability to others, and a willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the common good. In the world of Harry Potter or Elizabeth Bennet, as in our world, the neutrality of values clarification is always too late for virtue.

Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.

Thomas S. HibbsThomas S. Hibbs is the dean of the honors college and distinguished professor of philosophy at Baylor University.


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