Teaching Virtue Through Fairy Tales

And now something on the inspirational side:

Awakening the Moral Imagination: Teaching Virtues Through Fairy Tales

  • VIGEN GUROIAN (From the Catholic Education Resource Center)

Fairy tale and modern fantasy stories project fantastic other worlds; but they also pay close attention to real moral “laws” of character and virtue. By portraying wonderful and frightening worlds in which ugly beasts are transformed into princes and evil persons are turned to stones and good persons back to flesh, fairy tales remind us of moral truths whose ultimate claims to normativity and permanence we would not think of questioning.

When Mendal was already the far-famed and much-hated rabbi of Kotzak, he once returned to the little town in which he was born. There he visited the teacher who taught him his alphabet when he was a child and read five books of Moses with him. But he did not go to see the teacher who had given him further instruction, and at a chance meeting the man asked his former pupil whether he had any cause to be ashamed of his teacher. Mendal replied: ‘You taught me things that can be refuted, for according to one interpretation they can mean this, according to another, that. But my first teacher taught me true teachings which cannot be refuted, and they have remained with me as such. That is why I owe him special reverence.’ from Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber

The notion that fairy tales and fantasy stories stimulate and instruct the moral imagination of the young is, of course, not new. The Victorians certainly held to that notion when they brought the fairy tale into the nursery. In our day, we have seen a resurgence of interest in the fairy tale. The renowned psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim gave this an important impetus twenty years ago with his publication of The Uses of Enchantment. The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1975). “It hardly requires emphasis at this moment in our history” Bettelheim wrote, that children need “a moral education… (that teaches] not through abstract ethical concepts but through that which seems tangibly right and therefore meaningful…. The child finds this kind of meaning through fairy tales.”(1)

Just in the past several years William J. Bennett has edited three highly successful anthologies that include ample samplings of classic fairy tales and modern chldren’s stories. (2). With The Book of Virtues (1994) and The Moral Compass and A Children’s Book of Virtues (1995), Bennett seems to have tapped a tremendous thirst among parents and teachers for literary resources that they might use in nurturing the moral imagination of children. They need, and are asking for direction in how to influence the moral character of the young.

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