Classical education is a holistic approach that is geared toward the cultivation of students’ minds, imagination, perception, and emotions so that they can be equipped with character traits that will help them to flourish and thrive both inside the school community and well beyond. It moves beyond the idea that education is only about transmitting information and skills and embraces the far more ambitious goal of character formation, both for the sake of a well-lived individual life and for the maintenance a healthy democracy and flourishing communities.
Although I am a proponent of classical education, we do not have to choose between a classical or more mainstream model of curriculum. That’s a false dilemma for educators interested in virtue education. Virtue education can be incorporated into a more mainstream educational setting precisely because it does not need to be an extra subject that is added atop a school’s academic program. Ideally, virtue education should permeate that existing curriculum as much as possible, because every discipline affords appropriate occasions to incorporate lessons about the virtues that the school has decided are important to the formation of its students. In many disciplines, the incorporation of virtue lessons and standards will be intuitive. One obvious example is English language arts (ELA).
Looking at the ELA curriculum standards in my own state, I’m struck by the extent to which the emphasis is on technique and mechanics, even at the earliest stages of literacy. In Kindergarten and first grade, for example, the standards are wholly taken up with phonetics and the identification of the formal features of texts and stories. The underlying assumption is that reading is merely a technical skill and ought to be taught and measured accordingly. Though of course there’s an essential technical dimension, I deny that the educational value of literacy can or should be reduced to this. There is an ineradicable ethical dimension to the study of the literary arts, and we ought to think more carefully about how reading, hearing, and writing stories play an essential role in forming our moral imagination and character.
In teaching children how to read, listen to, and write stories, we are forming their imagination, perception, and moral character. We should be honest and serious about this. Hence it’s wrong to think that kids should read whatever they happen to like or that any reading is good for them. The stories we share with our students are essential to the people they will become because we come to understand ourselves and our world, to a significant extent and from a very young age, through stories. They shape our imagination, which in turn forms our practical deliberation and choices.
As creatures who deliberate and decide for ourselves—who we will become and what we will do with our lives—each one of us faces the task of writing the stories of our own lives through the choices we make, both big and small. Each one of us must decide, to some degree, what sort of character we are going to be and into what sort of dramas we are going to enter as we grow and develop over time and as the narrative shape of our lives comes into view. Furthermore, our choices are not made in a cultural vacuum—we bring to them a stock of stories about heroes (or villains or fools) and their adventures (or misadventures). These stories have watered and fed our imagination over the years and inevitably shape the possibilities we see for ourselves. Stories give us exemplars—characters we might aspire to imitate in our own lives—and show us the potential consequences of certain choices, both for ourselves and others. In this way, stories are essential to the inculcation of virtue (or vice).
From an early age, then, young children need to be exposed to stories that show them what good and bad characters are through plot that reveal the narrative dimension of their lives. They should learn to pay attention to what the characters they read about are doing and why—but also to what these characters are thinking, feeling, imagining, and seeing that helps to explain what they do. Very young readers need to learn how to name their own emotions and life circumstances and to come to understand their own experiences through stories about other people. Older readers need to learn about the difference between good and bad choices and lives. Both stages are necessary for the development of virtue.
To pay attention to the content of literary texts is not to neglect the formal elements that are important to literacy. Rather, it is to notice how, in literary art, form and content are mutually illuminating. The narrative structure of stories is an imitation of the narrative structure of human lives, which is why stories are so essential to ethical formation. A story shows us how its character’s choices shape the arc of the story itself—viz., how these choices can determine the direction of the story itself, leading them to happy endings or tragic outcomes. When we consider what stories we should teach to our students, we should be thinking substantively about what sorts of characters (good and bad) and what sorts of lives we want our students to read about, discuss, and be formed by.
Reading literature is the space where our moral imaginations are formed, so let us think deeply and clearly about how we wish to form our students and why, as well as what literature best helps us to meet our more substantive educational goals.