I long (quite desperately, in fact) to give my children the tools they need to seek Truth always and everywhere. That is my utmost goal as a mother and as a homeschooler.
I suppose that may describe many of you, as well. If our chief priority is to help our children seek and know the Truth, then what we ought to discuss is how exactly such a thing is done. We ask the question: how do we form the moral imagination in our children?
What I really want to do here is have a conversation; that’s what I’m hoping this can be. I’m not an expert- I didn’t receive the kind of education I seek for my own children. I’m simply a mother, seeking. I aspire to give my kids a formation that will strengthen their souls and nourish their minds. If you do, as well, then perhaps we can use this space for a discussion about how we might go about such a thing.
For this first discussion, I listened to Fairy Tales and the Moral Imagination by Andrew Pudewa. (You can download it here. It’s worth the $3.00.)
What is a Moral Imagination?
Most of the definitions I’ve seen are a bit confusing (at least to my untrained, uneducated mind). I have to read them multiple times to really grasp what they mean.
My understanding of the Moral Imagination is this- you tell me if you think I’m on the right track:
The Moral Imagination is the ordering of the soul rightly toward Truth. It rests entirely on the understanding that humans are reflections of the Divine Image- our value does not rest on our usefulness or utility, but on our very natures. It is, basically, the intrinsic knowing of God’s Truth in our souls.
And here I must clarify that I do not mean “truth” as our morally relativistic society uses the term. The idea “your truth may or may not match my truth” is a grave misuse of the term. For Truth itself is not subjective, it does not change, and it does not vary. It just is. God has revealed Himself to us as the source of all Truth. Our business, then, is to go about seeking it always and everywhere.
The Four Kinds of Knowing
In his lecture, Andrew Pudewa briefly outlines the four kinds of knowledge:
- Scientific Knowledge (which can be proven physically)
- Logical Knowledge (which can be explained philosophically)
- Dialectical Knowledge (which can be argued, dialectically)
- Poetic Knowledge (which is what we know, in our inmost being, to be True)
He goes on to say that until recent times, Scientific Knowledge was viewed as the most simplistic and basic, and Poetic Knowledge was revered as the highest form of knowing. In postmodern times, we have inverted these forms of knowledge, elevating Scientific Knowledge over all the other forms.
We have also reduced human nature to that of the lowest common denominator, which fits this model entirely. Poetic Knowledge rests on the firm Truth that we, as humans, are created in the Image of God. Scientific Knowledge rests on the very basal understanding of humans as conglomerations of cells performing a function. Our postmodern view of human life and divine purpose (or lack thereof) reflects this inversion quite predictably.
Cultivating the Moral Imagination
We feed the Moral Imagination by building up in our children a Poetic Knowledge- an innate understanding of that which is True, good, and beautiful. Historically, this has been done through the passing on of stories which enrich and enlighten. Specifically, we do this by telling our children fairy tales. Not modern, politically correct, or Disney versions of fairy tales, and especially not inverted versions of fairy tales- but rather the traditional fairy tales: Hans Christian Anderson, Andrew Lang, the Brothers Grimm.
The traditional fairy tales portray good as good, evil as evil, and good always triumphs over evil. Sometimes good triumphs in the obvious way (Cinderella), and sometimes in the redemptive way (The Little Match Girl). Either way, the traditional fairy tale orders a child’s senses toward truth and forms her imagination.
Traditional fairy tales are not the only stories which build up a Moral Imagination, however. Many classic stories (and very few modern stories) do the same. What we look for is a right ordering of good and evil and the triumph or redemption of good. These kinds of stories are, Pudewa says, “whole” or “healing.” They order our senses and affections rightly.
When we read a story that is whole or healing, we naturally interject ourselves in the story and ask questions like, “Would I have done that? Could I have done that? Should I have done that?” Even when the characters are doing bad things (think Pinnochio), we naturally develop our concept of what is right and what is wrong. That is to say, we naturally develop our Moral Imagination.
We are, all of us, struggling to kill the evil nature in ourselves. This is the human way. When evil is destroyed in a fairy tale, we relate and recognize that it is indeed possible to slay evil in ourselves. When good triumphs in a fairy tale, even when it comes through hardship (such as when the Little Match Girl dies at the end of the story, but has gained Heaven), we see the evidence of Christ’s Redeeming power. We are reminded of Truth. We behold beauty. We build up in ourselves a sense of goodness. This simply can’t be done on the same level with realistic fiction. Fairy Tales meet our souls where they are.
How to Destroy the Moral Imagination
Pudewa categorizes other literature (that is, all that is not “whole” or “healing”) into two other categories: “broken” or “twisted.”
Broken stories are those that high schools tend to cram into the curriculum- you probably read several during your own formative years- stories like Death of a Salesman, The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, and A Separate Peace. These kinds of stories can be beneficial by children of a certain maturity, but only with careful guidance and coaching, because good is good, bad is bad, and bad wins. This is not reality. Bad things happen, yes (and bad things happen in whole/healing stories), but in reality, bad does not triumph. In reality, God triumphs. Truth triumphs. Happily-ever-after is real in the form of Heaven. That teens are reading these existentialist stories in a secular environment without the careful guidance of mindful parents/mentors is somewhat frightening. Broken stories feed young people with a depressing and hopeless mindset. Their worldview is then nurtured (or rather, starved) by the very ideas we so desperately want them to reject.
Twisted stories are the worst of all, because they portray good as evil and evil as good- they actually glorify evil. Pudewa did not give any specific examples of children’s fiction that is “twisted”, but I would lump Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (the trilogy that includes The Golden Compass) into this category, as Pullman himself has said that these books are all about “killing God.”
Stories with inverted archetypes are an especially dangerous form of twisted literature, because they subtly disrupt the entire universe. An archetype is an idea that is represented in an image or a concept. For example, dragons have, since time eternal, represented evil. Stories wherein the dragons are “nice,” “tame,” or “friendly,” and who must win over the minds of closed-minded civilians whom just don’t understand them, are an example of inverted archetypal literature. These stories abound in libraries, schools, and bookstores, and most teachers and parents who use them don’t have any idea that they are, unwittingly, undermining Truth by sharing such stories with children.
The Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer are good examples of archetype inversions (vampires who really want to be good, but are trapped in their vampire bodies outside of their will). Look, I know. I read all of Twilight and I think I even admitted to that on this blog. I told you- I’m learning! I’m just as vulnerable as anyone else! That’s why I’m trying so hard to build up my own understanding of what literature does to our souls, so that I can build that up in my own self and in my children.
Pudewa says that literature is the most direct line toward forming the soul of a person. It reaches us in places where art and music do not. It stays with us. It literally forms us. That is why it is so crucial that we be selective about the literary fare we offer to our kids.
If you enjoyed this article…
…check out the follow-up article here. You’ll also enjoy this podcast on the Read-Aloud Revival about the best fantasy for kids. There’s a great book list at that link, as well!