Vigen Guroian, a theologian and ethicist who teaches at Loyola College in Maryland, has read the important tomes by the authorities in his field. He has even written a couple of them.
But to his mind, one of the best sources of moral wisdom lies in the classic fairy tales read to us when we were children.
Not the sanitized Disney versions, mind you. But classics like the stories by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," and the story of the wooden puppet who wanted to become a real boy, "Pinocchio."
It is through hearing those stories, often read by an important adult like a parent or grandparent, that children exercise their "moral imagination" and do not merely learn about virtue, but have it instilled into their character.
"The great fairy tales and fan-tasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, where characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong or heroes and villains contest the very fate of imaginary worlds," Guroian writes in "Tending the Heart of Virtue," his most recent book.
The book has gained a particularly enthusiastic audience among parents who home-school their children. Guroian's publisher, Oxford University Press, has ordered a second printing.
Guroian, a 50-year-old professor who delivers lectures wearing his signature bow tie, has written three books on Christian ethics, and has also published extensively on the Orthodox Christian church (he is Armenian Orthodox).
But in many ways, "Tending the Heart of Virtue" is his most personal work. He developed many of his theories while teaching at Loyola and at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University, where he is also on the faculty.
He read many of these same stories to his son, Rafi, and his daughter, Victoria. His own love of folk tales began as he grew up, hearing not just the classic fairy tales but also yarns told to him by his maternal grandmother.
"She told me humorous tales, which I tell in my classroom, about a particular character called Nasreddin Khoja," an Islamic holy man who was also quite a trickster, he says. "Then she'd tell me some kind of moral tales, often in Armenian. As I got older, she told them in English as well.
"Of course, they lost something in the translation."
Guroian recalls his grandmother's visits to his childhood home in Stamford, Conn., when they had time by themselves in the mornings. "If she came to visit me in our home for a couple of weeks, I would run down to her room in the mornings before school, before the school day started and I had to be off," he says. There, he would snuggle under the covers with his grandmother, who was always waiting for him, already awake, ready with another tale.
Just like many of the classic fairy tales, his grandmother's stories were not always light and sweet, but sometimes had the hard edge of the reality of a cruel world. About 1915, when she was a 12-year-old girl growing up in historic Armenia, at that time under Ottoman rule and a part of Turkey, "She used to take supplies to the resistance fighters in the hills," Guroian says. "Some of the stories came from that."
Guroian argues that these stories are essential tools in helping children -- or even adults -- to learn to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and to inculcate virtues like courage and honesty. This process was clearly demonstrated, he says, when he took a group of his Loyola students several years ago to St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, where they read "Pinocchio" with a group of fourth graders (including his daughter, Victoria).
After they read the story, the college students and the fourth-graders broke into groups, where they made posters and performed skits based on the plot.
The problem was that the college students had but faint memories of the intricacies of the plot. The youngsters, on the other hand, had it down cold, remembering exact details of Pinocchio's movements and interactions in the story.
The reason the fourth graders could recall the story in such detail "was not a process of memorization in the formal sense," Guroian says. "It was an appropriation of the story as a resource for them in their young years to discern right from wrong and to come to some conclusions and judgments about Pinocchio's own behavior, and to draw some comparisons with their own lives."
His college students, however, were looking for abstractions, searching for the basic point or meaning of the story.
"They'd been taught that all the detail is not so much what's important, but rather can you distill something out of it that you can sort of summarize," he explains.
"You miss a lot if you read narrative that way, particularly one that is deceptively simple. But it's not if it's a good story. It might be deceptively simple, but it could be profound in its insights into human nature, human conduct and human morality."
When Guroian reads "Pinocchio," he doesn't just see a story about a puppet that magically becomes a boy. Rather, he discerns a struggle and a process that starts with a wooden-headed puppet who is lazy, who lies and is continually irresponsible.
As a result, he is turned into a donkey, his nose grows and he ends up getting swallowed by a shark. Along the way, he is almost drowned, burned and is hung on a tree (note the crucifixion symbolism, Guroian says).
Eventually, through the help of the blue fairy, Pinocchio learns to be more selfless, more truthful and more courageous, and only then is he transformed into a real boy, Geppetto's true son.
"Already, before his wooden frame turns into flesh and blood, Pinocchio is a good son," Guroian writes. "Thus, not through some final magical action is Pinocchio's transformation into a real boy accomplished, as Disney has it, but by the inner working of a grace that converts the heart and moves the self toward real acts of love."
Children relate to Pinocchio, Guroian says, "precisely because they feel like puppets; precisely because the puppet wants to be free; precisely because the puppet is struggling with the question of how to be responsible, or not be responsible; precisely because the puppet keeps messing things up and just doesn't know quite how to correct it; precisely because the puppet is wanting to please the parent, the adult."
In "Tending the Heart of Virtue," Guroian goes on to describe the moral lessons of love, friendship, evil and redemption, and faith and courage in stories like "The Velveteen Rabbit," "The Little Mermaid," "The Wind in the Willows," "The Princess and the Goblin," and "Charlotte's Web."
It is a shame, he says, that he finds that his students are often unfamiliar with these classic tales.
"We consider them a part of some sort of canon often," he says. "But the canon simply remains on the bookshelf. It's not taken down."
What's lost, he says, is "a personal voice" of moral instruction in young peoples' lives.
"Children want to trust in their parents and will entrust their attention to their parents," he says. "Twenty years later, you'll see the results in how your children respond to you, relate to you, that has absolutely everything to do with the half-hour or 45 minutes you might have spent with them regularly, telling them stories or reading them stories of value.
"Those memories become a part of filial love that endures throughout life," he says. "After all, we're always the child, the son or daughter, of some father or mother. It's fundamental to human identity."
Pub Date: 01/17/99