I remember reading with delight my parents’ edition of Aesop’s fables. Almost as fascinating as Milo Winter’s beautiful illustrations were the morals at the end of each story. For the Fox and the Cheese it was, “Don’t listen to a flatterer;” for The Sun and the Wind, “Kindness works better than harshness;” and the Satyr and the Man, “Don’t say one thing and do another.” I think I liked seeing how the stories were more than just a plot—they meant something.
Fables like these do form an essential part of the intellectual development of young children. However, it is important that children are taught to look beyond the simplistic moral that these stories present. Otherwise, their ability to relate virtue to a complex world will be stunted. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “When I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Literature education that emphasizes “moral finding” into the middle and high school years is childish. It loses integrity in the eyes of boys and girls becoming men and women. In these stages of development, the goal of reading the Brothers Karamazov, The Scarlet Letter, or Les Misérables is not to draw “life lessons” but to enrich the soul.
In 8th grade, the students read To Kill a Mockingbird. While we do spend some time thinking about the more obvious lessons the novel presents, such as Atticus' famous line, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it," we also think about the sacrifices that Atticus makes for his principles. Is he right to give Bob Ewell the benefit of the doubt and endanger his family? What are the positive and negative qualities of a stoicism like Atticus'? I want students to have to wrestle with the text, not just accept it.
One beauty of a classical literature curriculum is that it can teach virtue without being “preachy.” A great artist once said that you can tell if a portrait is an accurate likeness even if you never saw the original model. The same is true for literature. One mark of great literature is its truthful depiction the complexity of reality. This quality of truth has allowed classical story and myth to captivate our imaginations for thousands of years. They keep becoming relevant to our lives in surprising ways.
For example, a boy who reads the Odyssey may identify with Telemachus and his longing to be a man. Ten years later, he may identify with Odysseus struggling against the comforts of Calypso’s island to achieve his higher mission. Reading the epic again in ten years, he may identify with the swineherd Eumaeus, who has had to practice virtue in a city that lacks a moral compass. How do these characters succeed or fail? Did they choose the right or wrong path? These are not life lessons, they are life questions.
Lewis Carroll in his witty Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland creates a delightful interchange between the odious Duchess and Alice that satirizes the kind of education that would moralize rather than question. Notice how absurd and shallow the Duchess’ insights are. Here is their conversation:
`Tut, tut, child!' said the Duchess. `Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it.'
`The game's going on rather better now,' [Alice] said, by way of keeping up the conversation a little.
`'Tis so,' said the Duchess: `and the moral of that is—"Oh, 'tis love, 'tis love, that makes the world go round!"'
`Somebody said,' Alice whispered, `that it's done by everybody minding their own business!'
`Ah, well! It means much the same thing,' said the Duchess, digging her sharp little chin into Alice's shoulder as she added, `and the moral of that is—"Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves."'
`How fond she is of finding morals in things!' Alice thought to herself.
A few lines later, the Duchess springs this whopper of a sentence on Alice:
`I quite agree with you,' said the Duchess; `and the moral of that is, "Be what you would seem to be"—or if you'd like it put more simply—"Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise."'
`I think I should understand that better,' Alice said very politely, `if I had it written down: but I can't quite follow it as you say it.'
`That's nothing to what I could say if I chose,' the Duchess replied, in a pleased tone.
Satire, as the 8th grade students learn, is making fun of something that deserves to be made fun of; in other words, using humor to point out a flaw. In this scene, Carroll is satirizing a system of education that is patronizing in its zeal to find trite "morals" in everything. In contrast, literature read well should ennoble us with its profound treatment of human questions.