Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Moral Literacy: The Virtue of The Book of Virtues

By Miriam Schulman

"Read us something from the big book!" has been the cry at my house recently when bedtime rolls around. The big book (and my children use the term advisedly) is William J. Bennett's best-selling tome, The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories.

In it, Bennett has collected some 500 tales, poems, and essays to "aid in the time-honored task of the moral education of the young." For those who want a little less heft, Bennett's publisher, Simon & Schuster, has recently released The Book of Virtues for Young People, a selection of about 30 stories for younger readers, handsomely illustrated by Michael Hague. In either case, Bennett suggests if we read these pieces to our children, they'll learn to recognize a virtue the next time they see one. In fact, they might even begin to display a few.

Does Bennett's book deliver on this promise? Though I draw from an admittedly small sample—I have two children—I'd like to address that question because I do believe what we read can make a difference in our moral fiber, although not, I suspect, in the way Bennett proposes.

An Apology for Poetry
From Horace to Percy Bysshe Shelley, writers have long held that literature is an effective teacher of morality. Indeed, in his Apology for Poetry, the great 16th-century English poet Sir Philip Sidney argues that poets (and, by extension, writers of fiction) are the very best teachers of virtue.

Assuming that "the ending end of all earthly learning [is] virtuous action," Sidney suggests that there are two ways to achieve that end: by precept or by example. Precept is the province of the philosopher, who may be a worthy fellow, but who is inclined, in Sidney's view, to be a little dull. The message, he maintains, needs packaging.

Poets do this, Sidney says, by using examples that "delight to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger, and teach, to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved."

Sidney's formulation contains three terms that have figured in discussions of literature's ethical possibilities for centuries: to delight, to teach, and to move. Notice how they crop up in Bennett's introduction to The Book of Virtues. First, he assures us children will be delighted by the tales in his collection: "You can't beat these stories when it comes to engaging the attention of a child." Through their delight, he continues, youngsters will be instructed: The stories, in his words, show "what the virtues look like, what they are in practice, how to recognize them, and how they work." By contemplating the stories, Bennett says, children will be moved to proper behavior: "They must achieve at least a minimal level of moral literacy that will enable them to make sense of what they see in life and, we may hope, help them to live it well."

Do the stories have the desired effect? After reading any number to my children, I'd have to say some do and some do not. Much depends on how their authors understand those time-tested terms: delight, teach, and move.

To Delight
Take two of my son's current favorites: "Jim," by Hilaire Belloc, and "Ulysses and the Cyclops," retold by Andrew Lang. To an 8-year-old, the source of delight offered by these two pieces is similar and can be stated in one word: gore. Remember, the Cyclops snatched up several of Ulysses' men, "knocked out their brains on the floor, tore the bodies limb from limb, roasted them at his fire, ate them, and, after drinking many pailfuls of milk, lay down and fell asleep."

In "Jim/Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a lion," the reader is encouraged to

just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!

Set aside for a moment the strong possibility that Belloc means us to read this account with a degree of irony, and accept "Jim" as an old-fashioned cautionary tale. According to Bennett's model, such a tale delights children with its delicious grisliness, making them more open to the serious moral: "the gruesome end that comes to children who dart away from their mothers into streets, run away from their fathers at crowded ball parks, dash screaming down grocery store aisles, and who in general cannot bring themselves to hold on to the hand they are told to hold."

I'd like to report that, since reading this poem, my son has become a paragon of obedience; but, alas, that has not been the effect. Of course, even the most ardent defender of literature would not expect the results to be instantaneous. But I predict, over time, my son will not get much ethical mileage out of "Jim." Surely, he has been delighted; yet, in isolation, delight produces only art for art's sake.

To Teach
If literature is to have an ethical dimension, delight must serve moral education. As Horace put it, "He has gained every vote who has mingled profit with pleasure by delighting the reader at once and instructing him."

In Bennett's view, to perform the teaching function of literature, a story must present a clear moral issue and instruct children as to the proper choice. "Children," he writes, "must have at their disposal a stock of examples illustrating what we see to be right and wrong, good and bad-examples illustrating that, in many instances, what is morally right and wrong can indeed be known and promoted." Often the promotion involves rewards for good behavior, although a ripsnorting tale of wickedness punished will also do nicely.

At first blush, it might seem like Bennett's approach would be the best way for a story to teach morality. Look at "Jim." Here is a person doing a bad thing, and this is his punishment. We even call such an outcome poetic justice. There's only one problem with this approach: It only works in poetry. The simple equations of tales like "Jim"—skate on Farmer Brown's pond without permission and drown; stand up for your little sister and grow up to be president—do not always play out in real life.

One could, I suppose, make a case that children need to start by learning simple concepts, which can become more nuanced as they grow morally. But such an approach would work only if the ethical questions they face were equally simple. Anyone who has spent any time on the playground knows they are not: Must kids include anyone who wants to play in their games? How can they be equitable in the distribution of scarce resources like tether balls? If someone hits them, should they hit back?

What can a story like "Jim" teach my son to help him address such complicated issues? Do as you're told? That maxim, as we have learned so painfully from 20th-century history, is not necessarily a virtue.

Because children, like the rest of us, live in an ethically complex world, they need stories where the moral landscape more closely reflects the ambiguities of their own lives. One annoyance in The Book of Virtues is Bennett's attempt to impose platitudes on the most recalcitrant stories. If the moral is not obvious in the classic tale, he may well select an "edited" version for his collection. In every account of Jack in the Beanstalk I have ever read, Jack is a lazy scamp, who steals the giant's gold and magic hen and harp. As is typical in folk tales, we root for him because he's clever (and because the giant is hideous).

In the adaptation by Andrew Lang included in Bennett's book, Jack ascends the beanstalk only to meet a mysterious old lady who tells him, "It is said that someday a young lad will come from the valley below to challenge the giant and win the treasures for his poor mother." In Bennett's introduction to this sanitized version, that scalawag Jack "redeems himself through a bravery that rises from a sense of duty to his mother. Courage leads upward, and sooner or later we must all climb our own beanstalks." Puh-leez.

The enduring stories, I think, resist such easy moralizing. That is not to say we can't draw morals from them; only that the learning comes from engagement with a narrative that does not offer a simple view of right and wrong.

Like the story of Ulysses. Bennett includes his excerpt from this epic under the heading of "Courage." In his introduction to the story, Bennett writes, "Of all the Greek heroes, [Ulysses] was the one whose courage was the most rooted in cleverness. Time after time, when others sank into despair, [he] instead summoned his own powers of ingenuity."

True enough. But in the story of the Cyclops, Ulysses must call on his courage because he has failed in some other moral dimension. Remember, before Polyphemus began making dinner out of Ulysses' men, the men had stolen into his cave, planned to carry off his cheeses, and were, in fact, feasting on his food when he came home. In other words, we do not have a simple tale of virtue rewarded and vice punished. Children—especially in conversation with their parents—can learn from this tale something about how wrongs proliferate as well as how cleverness can be a form of courage.

To Move
The story of Ulysses, then, delights and instructs, and, I think, brings us closer to the third ethical function of literature: moving us to behave well. Of course, "to move" could mean the story impels us to act in a particular way-we read "Jim," and, not wanting to be eaten, we hold Nurse's hand. We might think of this as the hell-fire-and-brimstone method of ethical pedagogy; its obverse was defined by Sidney: The writer of literature "doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter it."

Well put, but not, in my observation, how literature moves us. We do not seek to emulate characters in books because we see them being appropriately rewarded or punished. Rather, stories like "Ulysses and the Cyclops" move us in the emotional sense. They stir our feelings; they arouse our emotions; they make us care about the characters and their fate. This kind of movement alone does not instill virtue, but I think it is a necessary precursor to the process of thinking and discussion by which we develop morality.

We need look no further than the Old Testament to find tales of unpunished betrayal and unrewarded piety that have, nonetheless, formed the basis of a great ethical tradition. Is it right for, for example, that Jacob steals the blessing intended for his older brother, Essau? And yet Jacob is still the person God chooses to lead the tribe of Abraham. Grappling with morally problematic issues like this has provided grist for generations of ethical thinkers.

But Bennett does not trust the Bible to do its ethical work, selecting bowdlerized versions that make the stories conform to some preconceived notion of the proper message. In "The Long, Hard Way Through the Wilderness," Walter Russell Bowie's retelling of the Israelites' desert wanderings, Moses is an ever-patient leader, whose strongest utterance is: "I am not able to take care of all these people alone. It is too much for me."

Compare that to the biblical outcry: "Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? And wherefore have I not found favor in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? Have I begotten them that thou shouldest say unto me, 'Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child...'?" Now that passage is moving. In it, a reader recognizes Moses as a human person and is inspired to ponder the whole question of discouragement and faith.

When the reader is a child, that reflection needs to be guided. Stories do not, on their own, lead to virtue, which Bennett himself recognizes. He offers his book as an aid in the moral education of the young. Other aspects of that task include, as he says, instruction, exhortation, training, and example. I just wish Bennett had a bit more faith in the process he lays out, allowing the literature to speak with all its ambiguity and uncertainty, trusting parents to provide the context of values that helps the stories make sense.

If we're hoping to move our children to act ethically, then we must read them stories containing real dilemmas. By discussing these choices, we can help children understand how we arrive at our own moral stance so, when the time comes for them to go to the zoo or to the island of the Cyclopes without us, they will avoid becoming dinner for the inhabitants.

I do not mean, by these criticisms, to denigrate Bennett's project. The Book of Virtues has much to recommend it, not least the willingness to take stories and their potential for moral education seriously. I wish only to suggest that the virtues are not in The Book of Virtues per se. They arise from our interaction with the tales, from our willingness to confront the hard questions the best of them raise.

Miriam Schulman is the editor of Issues in Ethics.