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  • Four Perspectives on the Value of Literature for Moral and Character Education
  • David Carr (bio)

This paper distinguishes and explores four respects in which past and present-day fictional, dramatic, and poetic literature might be used for the education of moral character, have moral educational intent, or at least have implications for such education: these are here identified and named as (1) the “Platonic” approach, (2) the “Aristotelian” approach, (3) the Romantic reaction, and (4) the postmodern turn. While reaffirming the time-honored conviction that literature may play a significant role in character education, the present paper identifies and explores some of the philosophical and other influences that have served--at least from the publication of such key works of modernity as Joyce's Ulysses and Eliot's Wasteland if not before this--to shake or weaken much modern and postmodern confidence in the traditional moral role of literature.

We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.

—Thornton Wilder, Our Town, Act III1

Character, Virtue Ethics, and Moral Education

The main aim of this paper is to raise and explore some issues about the possible or actual uses of past and present-day creative and imaginative literature (fiction, drama, poetry) for moral educational purposes—more specifically to the purpose of cultivating moral or virtuous character. In this regard, it may be helpful to spell out—albeit briefly—certain stage-setting claims or assumptions on which this essay rests. However, while it is not here held that all or any of these claims are beyond dispute, they will not be presently defended or explored further.

The first claim is that, despite the long dominance of a (mainly Kohlbergian) cognitive developmental conception of moral education2—and its undeniable contribution to the evolution of latter-day theorizing in this field—its day, at least in form defended by its main architect, is now mainly past. In this regard, even his most appreciative and loyal followers have recognized the need for fairly radical departure from Kohlberg’s original almost exclusive emphasis on moral cognition.3 The second claim is that [End Page 1] the more recent general course that theorizing about moral development and education has followed is in the direction of so-called character education: in one form or other, revival of character development as a the key aim of moral education has been a fast-growing trend in the United States since at least the 1980s and has recently caught on in a big way in other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom.4 However, the third claim is that, of all its available versions, the most theoretically promising prospect for a satisfactory practice of character education lies in further refinement of that basically Aristotelian conception of character that has come to be known—at least since the mid-twentieth century—as “virtue ethics.” Briefly, on Aristotle’s account, the cultivation of moral virtue more or less amounts to the ordering of appetites, feelings, and/or sentiments in accordance with some deliberative ideal of practical wisdom—or what he calls “phronesis.”5 Such practical wisdom is also largely characterized by Aristotle in terms of median avoidance of excesses and deficits of affect and/or appetite.6

However, the fourth claim is that the Aristotelian role of practical reason in the ordering of affect, feeling, or sentiment suggests an important place for narrative and imaginative literature in the cultivation of virtuous character. This idea has been much defended in recent days, perhaps most notably by the virtue ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre, who has insisted that—since human agents understand themselves morally as characters in stories—literature rather than science offers the best insight into moral character and its development...


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