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Becoming a Thousand Men: How Children’s Literature Forms Virtue

~ by Emily Brigham ~

Legend has it—and I don’t believe it’s apocryphal—that my older sister was talking like Anne Shirley at the age of three. Immersed in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables from this young age, the verbose and imaginative language of the red-haired, violet-eyed heroine became the natural dialect of my sister. And, truth be told, it never really wore off.

It is this story—and the myriads of others that filled my sisters’ and my growing up—that shaped my childhood to an extent that I only now see. My mother, who homeschooled the three of us, filled our days “shaken together and running over” with good stories. We read them, heard them, watched them, and played them, living our days as Jo March, Laura Ingalls, or Elizabeth Bennett, depending on the mood of the day. Our lives became imaginatively intertwined with theirs, as we imitated their speaking, their adventures, their virtues, and even their vices. For more than filling their minds with knowledge, stories capture children’s imaginations, form their hearts, and shape their desires. It is, in my experience, the most formative teaching a child can receive because it reaches the whole child in a way not many things can.

And if there is something that needs to be formed in children today, is it not virtue, and in particular, those four classical virtues of justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude? While we cannot say “The need for them is greater than ever before,”—for how can we depreciate the need during eras of which we were not part?—we can say that instruction in these virtues is sorely lacking. In my experience teaching elementary-aged children, it isthese virtues which are the most needed—a sense of rightness and fittingness, a measured self-control, an application of wisdom, and the resilience to be faithful.

But I suspect that, in instruction such as this, we are sometimes too hasty in dismissing the child’s ability to comprehend and digest the knowledge and truth they take in. On the contrary, the child’s natural wonder and astonishment, compassion and sensitivity, enthusiasm and creativity is what makes this story-learning so formative for young souls. C.S. Lewis, author of some of the most captivating children’s stories, wrote in An Experiment on Criticism: 

 . . .[W]e seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. . .We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. . .In reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.

The child’s capacity to be enlarged, to be more than themselves, to become a thousand men and yet remain themselves—isn’t that what we see so naturally in childhood? When children don coon-skin caps like Davy Crockett or wear their hair in pigtails like Laura Ingalls or whittle arrows like Robin Hood, they are demonstrating an ability to reflect the life, the habits, and the virtues of another by an abandonment to another self. Virtue once learned must be acted out and acted upon, and that is what stories give children the chance to do: to respond to virtue through action.

Through Scholé’s new course offering — Classic Children’s Literature — it is my hope to teach these necessary virtues through the formative means of stories, and not just any stories, but those novels embedded in the tradition of childhood — Charlotte’s Web; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Railway Children; Carry on, Mr. Bowditch; and The Wind in the Willows. These stories, which have so captivated and commanded the attention and imagination of children for decades, will be interacted with in such a way that the whole child is addressed using written, oral, and artistic mediums to impress upon them the value of the virtues that these stories illustrate.

Reflecting on the “ancient trinity” of truth, goodness, and beauty — a paramount pursuit at Scholé and the world of classical education — Alexander Solzenhitsyn articulates the formative potential of beauty:

So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through — then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexcited stems of Beauty will push through and soar to that very same place, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three? . . . And in that case, art, literature might really be able to help the world today?

I believe that the beauty in these stories—these children’s classics—will, as Solzenhitsyn prophesied, push through and soar up in a way that will impress upon children’s hearts an affinity for the good and the virtuous that will do more than help the world: it will shape the soul.

Emily Brigham holds a BA in Primary Education from the University of North Florida. She was homeschooled through high school in the classical tradition, and previously taught the elementary grades in a Waldorf-inspired public charter school. Her classical upbringing instilled in her what Plato called an “affinity for the good” in academics, art, and virtue, while her Waldorf training inspired an appreciation of the unique nature of the child. She now seeks to cultivate those whole-child pedagogical approaches in the classical, liturgical tradition, to awaken in her own students that “affinity for the good.”

Emily lives in Jacksonville, Florida.  Her avocations include bringing classical, sacred, and old-time music to churches, front porches, and street corners, and coaxing as many flowers as possible into her garden. These, and a trip to the mountains, are where she loves to find the glimpses of God’s goodness in these sacred ordinary days. [email protected]

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