Cultivate the Moral Imagination to Develop Character

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 01/11/2014

If you’re trying to teach your children moral virtues (or you’re being intentional about developing them in yourself), here’s some good advice from Hillsdale College professor Daniel Coupland:

[T]he issue of “character education” goes much deeper than the latest “techniques.” Character education is really about cultivating the moral imagination, a process that takes time, patience, and the right kinds of experiences.

In his book Tending the Heart of Virtue, Vigen Guroian describes the moral imagination this way:

The moral imagination is not a thing, not even so much a faculty, as the very process by which the self makes metaphors out of images given by experience and then employs these metaphors to find and suppose moral correspondences in experience.... The richness or the poverty of the moral imagination depends on the richness or the poverty of experience.

But can’t we just explain virtuous behavior? Guroian says no.

Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture its 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.

Guroian then makes a compelling case for cultivating the moral imagination through children’s literature.

The great fairy tales and fantasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, where characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong, or heroes and villains contest the very fate of imaginary worlds.

The best way to begin the cultivation of moral character is to immerse children in great stories where virtues are rendered attractive—not in a sticky-sweet or preachy sort of way, but in a way that captures and feeds their imagination.

Teaching children what moral virtues are isn’t enough. You need to let them taste those virtues so they can see they’re desirable. (Of course, never do any of this outside the context of God’s grace, the cross, and our need for the Holy Spirit.) And since God is the foundation and standard of goodness, every time you teach your child to love something good, you will be molding his or her desire towards God Himself.

For more on this, see “Discipled by Narnia” and Greg’s interview with Joe Rigney.