Now, if we send to any publisher for his catalogue of school books,
we find that it is accepted as the nature of a school-book
that it be drained dry of living thought.
It may bear the name of a thinker,
but then it is the abridgment of an abridgment,
and all that is left for the unhappy scholar
is the dry bones of his subject denuded of soft flesh and living colour,
of the stir of life and power of moving.
Nothing is left
but what Oliver Wendell Holmes calls the ‘mere brute fact.’
— Charlotte Mason in Volume III: School Education
As a prerequisite, we need to remember that David Hicks said that the supreme task of education was the cultivation of the soul. I used to think that the task of education was to get a diploma, but I now realize that many, many students graduate with a piece of paper and a maimed or stunted soul. So here at Afterthoughts we look at education as producing a sort of person rather than passing a certain test.
Today’s idea is this: Morality is a function of the imagination. To expand a tiny bit more, a “good myth,” as Hicks puts it, inspires the imagination of the student and increases the student’s capacity for right moral behavior.
The reverse seems to also be true: unimaginative students do not excel in virtue.
It has taken me a couple of years to really wrap my mind around this concept. I first read of it in my favorite book of all time, Poetic Knowledge. Later, the thought was reaffirmed and re-expressed by Vigen Guroian in his work Tending the Heart of Virtue.
And now, David Hicks has concurred.
Myth as a Literary Type
When I was in high school, I was constantly irritated by an English teacher who insisted on calling the Bible a myth. I thought that calling it a myth meant that it was untrue. He condescended to explain to me that I was wrong — the Bible could be both myth as well as true because myth is a literary type.
I’ve had long time to think about this, and I see that David Hicks calls Scriptural stories “myths” as well. Hicks tells us that language is notoriously conservative because words are never emptied of their prior meanings, even when they acquire newer applications. In this sense, the new uses are adding senses of meaning without ever taking the old meaning away.
I do not naturally call true stories, even wonderful, awe-inspiring true stories, myths, because I have always myth to identify a level of falsehood.
With that said, I used myth in the title because Hicks used it in his book, and I’ll be quoting him. However, I personally will be using the phrases great story or living book as a name for the sorts of literature which are appropriate for education. These stories might be true or false or embellished, but because I will include the Bible, I just can’t bring myself to call them myths.
The Soul’s Encounter with Good Stories
There is a brilliant scene in the clever little Adam Sandler movie, Bedtime Stories. Sandler, who plays the part of Uncle Skeeter, is putting his niece and nephew to bed. He suggests a bedtime story, and searches the room for a book. What follows is actually a brilliant cultural observation:
Rainbow Alligator Saves the Wetlands… Organic Squirrel Gets a Helmet… I’m not reading you these communist stories!
Children’s books like these really exist. I remember an easy reader called Rikki Tikki Tavi that was a complete mutilation of the original tale. While Kipling wrote a story of danger and triumph that was also realistic and based on actual, observed animal behavior, the author wrote a story where Rikki Tikki faces great danger and learns a lesson in playing it safe. I will never forget the moral at the end: He would never leave home again.
And we wonder that we now have a generation of men who have failed to launch. Why wouldn’t they, when the greatest virtue we teach our children is to wear a helmet?
For all of human history, great men have been nourished on great stories. Hicks writes:
To the considerable extent that questions of value, of right and wrong, of justice and of beauty cannot be experimentally or rationally resolved, myth allowed many individuals to share an epiphany, a vision of truth granting them a basis for accepting certain normative standards for which there are no clear or convincing proofs. The myth of Job, for instance, has helped centuries of men and women endure suffering and injustice in the quiet certainty of right conduct.
And how many of us know that we can survive, for instance, famine or economic turmoil, because of the quiet heroism of Caroline Ingalls? How many of our sons will fight the dragon that they were born to fight because of Saint George and the Dragon? Great stories change us. To use a quote from the movie You’ve Got Mail:
When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.
Likewise, Hicks writes:
Myths inspire men to perform great and selfless deeds by assuring and warning them that their actions are not individual, but symbolic. Their actions and ideas have never-ending consequences. Truly, a civilized action or idea assumes the first principle of the mythos — that the thought and deed are both determined and existential at the same time, formed by the past, while transforming the future. The student of that myth is likewise transformed by participating in them through his imagination. The myth involves and commits him, civilizes him, stamps him.
Hicks on Myth
Hicks has a few details on the impact of reading the greatest stories of all time that I don’t want to leave out. He says that myths help us to know we are not alone. There are great people who have survived more extenuating circumstances than the ones we face, and we can be encouraged by that fact. Myths shared throughout a culture create a cultural cohesiveness, reinforcing the absolutes of virtue.
Myths have universal application. This is what he meant above when he said our actions are, on one level, symbolic. When I love my husband, for instance, there is a way in which my love says something about the love of all wives for their husbands. When I mother my children, there is a way in which my mothering makes a statement about what it means to mother. Myths give us an Ideal Type, an untarnished picture of what it means to be great.
So is it Scriptural?
Sometimes we Christians assume that because something isn’t spelled out explicitly in the Bible, it must not be true. The Bible does not say that virtue is born of moral imagination. However, I think that the concept is at least somewhat implicit in Scripture. It is assumed.
Let us take the favorite passage of Christian homeschoolers everywhere, which directly follows the Shema. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 says:
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
God commands the families to remember what He has done, to remember what He has commanded. The faith is handed down by the constant retelling of the great and mighty deeds of the Lord (most especially the Lord’s bringing them up out of slavery in Egypt), and of the wise commands of the Lord.
Remember the days of old;
consider the generations long past.
Ask your father and he will tell you,
your elders, and they will explain to you.
Forgetting the past is a grave threat to Faith.
Later in the Old Testament, we see King Josiah (our family favorite). He had been preceded by terrible kings, and the nation in general was in disrepair. He was a good king, to be sure, but he became great when he finally got a picture in his head, a vision of what his kingdom was meant to be. You see, as he was going along, ruling as best he knew how, the Book of the Law was found. When it was read to him, he was enlightened, and therefore grieved. He declared that the anger of the Lord was burning against the people because their fathers did not obey what was written in the book. But God had mercy on Josiah because his heart was responsive to what he had read. Josiah becomes a truly great king, a king whose imagination was captivated by God’s Word.
Finally, in the New Testament, we have the famous passage from Philippians 4:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Here we actually see the progression I’ve been writing about. First, Christians are to be thinking about things that are admirable and virtuous. We see that the things in their minds, the things they are able to imagine, came from somewhere else, which is to say from Paul. It is the things they have learned that they are able to put into practice. And these were learned not just from hearing, but also from seeing. In other words, they saw greatness in Paul (and in Jesus, of course), and become imitators.
At its heart, education is imitation, but we’ll discuss that another day.
Back to Imagination
When a child reads or hears great stories and great ideas, one right after the other, his mind is filled with images of virtue and excellence. He can picture what greatness is. He knows what loyalty looks like, because he has read of David and Jonathan. He knows what perseverance is, because he remembers Bruce’s famous spider.
Here is the important point: what the mind is full of is what the mind can imagine for its own character.
So if our daughters’ minds, are filled not with tales of Helen Keller, Florence Nightingale, Pocahontas, Boadicea, and the virtuous woman of Proverbs, but rather some silly cartoon character, their capacity for greatness, for imagining virtuous action, will be greatly diminished. The mind is full, and actions pour forth from it.
Applying the Concept
There are probably as many specific applications as there are men to make them, and what is required first and foremost is the asking of a very specific question:
In what way can we best prepare the imagination to attempt greatness?
Once we realize that the imagination is always working from a starting point, with the material with which it has been furnished through reading, story-telling, movie-watching, song-singing, or whatnot, we will realize the truth in what Hicks has said. Virtuous people have a picture of virtue in their heads already. When pressure hits, they rise to the occasion because the life of their mind has prepared them to do so. We cannot overemphasize the importance of training in the life of the mind.
Many “strict” families spend a lot of time and energy on censorship: seeking out what is evil and destroying it or prohibiting it. And surely such things have their place. But I think that energy is probably best spent on seeking out good things — great things — and refusing to settle for anything that is less than true, good, beautiful, and so on. When we spend our energy chasing virtuous thoughts for ourselves and our children, we have very little time left for mediocrity in all its various forms.
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