by Katie Hassler, Class Six Teacher
I don’t think I’d have much trouble getting most people in the Clapham community to agree with the statement that it isn’t enough just to be reading—it matters what we read. Why, though? Are we just interested in exposing our children and students to challenging language and ideas? I think most of us could also agree that the moral content of the books is important. Are the books students are reading exposing them to virtuous characters?
Wayne C. Booth in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988) compares books and characters to friends, arguing that, if “bad company corrupts good morals,” then we ought to be watchful about the literary company we are keeping. Many have argued through the ages that literature is a useful medium for teaching virtue. Why is this?
One reason is that stories teach virtues in an indirect, and therefore more powerful, way. Charlotte Mason in An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education, (New York: Routledge, 1925) says that a child “resists forcible feeding and loathes predigested food.” Along the same lines, Victor Guroian posits:
Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the 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. Stories are an irreplaceable medium for this kind of moral education—that is, the education of character. (Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 20)
Stories give attractive presentations of the good and provide an avenue for readers to learn to love, not only to know, the good.
Apart from their indirect method of dealing with morality, stories educate by their very nature. When we read stories, we are transported into fictional worlds. Coleridge once described the experience of readers as “a willing suspension of unbelief.” We come to books with our guards down and are more willing to accept ideas from them than we would be from a more direct source.
By the very act of reading, readers also identify with the characters or the author. Readers actually experience mentally what the characters in the story do. They are not merely seeing examples; they are practicing what they read. Booth explains:
Here is Georges Poulet describing in a fine undeconstructed way the mystery that occurs when I take into my mind the mind implied by the imagined totality of any story….‘As soon as I replace my direct perception of reality by the words of a book, I deliver myself, bound hand and foot, to the omnipotence of fiction….I am thinking the thoughts of another. Of course, there would be no cause for astonishment if I were thinking it as the thought of another. But I think it as my very own….I am the subject of thoughts other than my own. My consciousness behaves as though it were the consciousness of another.’ (139)
It is not, then, that in identifying we stop thinking our own thoughts but rather that ‘our own’ thoughts now become different from what they were. The author’s thoughts have at least in part become ours. (I am of course following Poulet in using ‘thoughts’ as the most general term for ‘all that enters our heads,’ including images, concepts and emotions.) Although we usually manage, when we are not totally carried away to a pathological identification, to return to thinking a thought something like what was ‘ours’ before we began listening—full conversions are always rare—a large part of our thought-stream is taken over, for at least the duration of the telling, by the story we are taking in. (140-141)
While we are reading, we try on the ideas and experiences of the author or character, and it is not always easy to take them off when we set down the book.
If reading means that we are trying on the thoughts, emotions, or even actions of a character or author, of course it matters what we read. Let us continue to introduce our students to “friends” who will help them along the path toward virtue instead of corrupting them!
Let’s make this a topic of conversation, even right here on the blog. How have you seen yourself or your children influenced by the literary company they are keeping? What stories can you recommend to others?