Character Education and the Moral Tale

Having just completed a complete draft of my dissertation, I’ve been thinking lately about its scope, and about avenues of inquiry that might lead away from my study of the narrative forms of moral tales. My main focus is on the intersection of children’s literature and the novel in the nineteenth century (you can read my abstract here), and so the most obvious contributions — the ones I’ve been anticipating from the beginning — are to literary fields: the history of the novel, Romantic and Victorian studies, children’s literature studies, and narrative theory. But there is another field that also thinks hard about moral tales: character education.

Writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Maria Edgeworth wrote her children’s tales in an explicitly pedagogical framework, drawing not just from her literary precursors but also from philosophers of education (like Locke and Rousseau) and from contemporary scientists like Erasmus Darwin. With a much more robust framework than that available to Edgeworth, twenty-first century social scientists like Darcia Narvaez have explored the experience of reading moral texts.

Drawing on research in reading comprehension, schematic processing, expertise, and moral judgment, Narvaez argues that while adults “often assume that if they provide good reasoning or a good story, the child will understand what the adult wants them [sic] to understand,” in fact “this is a faulty assumption . . . What readers remember is not the text as it was but, as meaning makers, what made sense and was meaningful to them” (“Moral Text Comprehension” 48). Children, in other words, “may understand texts in ways different from the author’s intention or the perspective of the instructor” (“Moral Text Comprehension” 49). This was something that Edgeworth and Rousseau were very aware of: Edgeworth constructs her tales to exploit this danger of misinterpretation, incorporating narrative challenges into her stories. She hoped to create a particular reading experience, in which the child reader (probably with an adult’s help) considers and reflects on the potential interpretations and moral conclusions.

Novels have historically played major cultural roles – one thinks of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Sinclair’s The Jungle – and narrative theory is applied in disciplines beyond literary studies: “the novel as a form currently enjoys the best press of its three-century career. Novels get credit for character-building renovation of readers into open-minded, generous citizens” (Keen, Empathy and the Novel 39). But the lesson we might take from Narvaez, a lesson we perhaps should have learned from the moral tale a century and a half ago, is that the experience of reading is in fact more complicated than that. As Suzanne Keen warns,

Character education is often taught in American primary and middle schools by means of stories illustrating core values, with the aim of shaping children’s values and behavior, as well as supporting academic success. Between underlying human temperaments and predictable outcomes in the form of response to narrative lies a great gulf, often bridged in educational psychology by hopeful constructions of the impact of didactic tales on children and convicted criminals . . . Younger readers may not be so malleable, or they may be deriving different lessons from their reading than the intended inculcation of virtues. (“Readers’ Temperaments” 301)

An understanding of the moral tale – how authors have historically constructed the narratives they wish to improve their readers, what methods they rejected, how these narratives interacted with the available understanding of educational psychology – becomes all the more important in these contexts. An understanding of the narrative form of the moral tale could opens doors not only for studies of children’s literature, the novel, and nineteenth-century British literature, but also perhaps for inquiry into how our culture bridges the gap between moral instruction and reading.

Works Cited

Narvaez, Darcia. “Moral Text Comprehension: implications for education and research.” Journal of Moral Education 30.1, 2001, pp. 43-54.
Keen, Suzanne. Empathy and the Novel. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Keen, Suzanne. “Readers’ Temperaments and Fictional Character.” New Literary History 42.4, Spring 2011, pp. 294-314.

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