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Virtue Is a Story for the Ages

February 10, 2001|BRUCE D. JOHNSON | Bruce D. Johnson is the president and CEO of a Los Angeles-based producer and distributor of family entertainment, including an animated series for PBS and KCET based on "The Book of Virtues" by William J. Bennett

Long before there were curriculums, or even formal schools, there were stories, and the stories themselves taught certain lessons about human behavior. From Plato to Poe, from Homer to George Lucas, our greatest storytellers create classic stories that resonate within our memories, reaching directly into the core of what it means to be a human being. The moral of the story, that's what we remember.

In the era of classical education, one of the fundamental goals was to acquire what in Latin was called virtus, or strength. Kids today usually think of strength as muscle-bound superheroes, but virtus actually meant inner strength, strength of character. Because many educators over the last century equated virtue with religion, this fundamental area of education has been absent in U.S. public schools, or at best underemphasized. The tragic events in recent years at schools in Colorado, Missouri, Georgia and elsewhere should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to examine whether schools are providing the tools to help children develop strong moral character.

In recent years, schools have done a superb job in teaching about the environment, creating a consciousness in children about the dangers of pollution, the need to preserve natural resources and to protect endangered species. However, until recently, public schools have neglected to nurture character development in children, choosing to leave this task to parents or religious organizations. But we cannot always rely on it happening there.

If a child's basic character development does not occur, we may find ourselves with children who are not equipped to handle the multiple choice tests of life. And in an era when slick, intelligent, aggressively marketed cultural and social influences are readily available, children are easy marks.

Television, film, music, video games, the Internet all have been cited as potential pollutants of a child's reservoir of character. And yet all of these media have much to offer to children, provided a child has the critical thinking skills necessary to navigate the tricky, seductive and often polluted waters of the media culture.

Every endangered species is valuable and needs to be protected, but perhaps childhood itself is an endangered species, and the best way to protect childhood is to give children the skills to say no, the knowledge to choose right from wrong, the ability to ferret out the best of the media offerings and the inner strength to do the right thing.

Character education is a basic skill, one that touches all areas of life. If you have self-discipline, your homework will come before Nintendo. If you have respect for others, you will use words, not weapons, when you disagree with someone. If you have compassion, you will look for ways to help those in need, not laugh at them or scorn them. If you have perseverance, you will find ways to overcome difficult obstacles instead of giving up. If you are honest, you will not look for ways to cheat. If you have courage, you will not be afraid to stand up against injustice.

Great stories of literature survive through the centuries because of what mythologist Joseph Campbell called archetypal heroes, characters who represent certain types of heroic human behavior. When it comes to teaching values, we could do a lot worse than to draw on the lessons of literature.

Our shared values are contained in the world's vast collection of classic literature--stories that transcend culture and have withstood the test of time, all because they offer heroic characters who show us how to be a better person. Whether you were listening to stories around a campfire in the year 1000 or are watching television in the year 2001, when a story's hero succeeds because of his or her courage, honesty, compassion, friendship, perseverance, faith or hard work, the moral is remembered forever.

Whether at home under the guidance of caring parents, or at school under the direction of good teaching, character education has the potential to strengthen a child's most fundamental psychological roots.

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