Teaching virtue is the very heart of education. Educators (by which I mean parents/teachers/pastors/anyone charged with the formation of young people) are responsible for leading their students to the truth. In the sphere of character, this means helping them identify those traits worthy of imitating, those goods worthy of obtaining, and the right means of doing so.
My favorite method for teaching virtue is story-telling. Remember when your kindergarten teacher read you The Little Red Hen, and you just knew that those lazy, no-good animals were reaping what they sowed when they didn’t get any cake but the diligent and industrious Hen- she had earned her cake? Or maybe you were a little older and you read The Lord of the Rings and imagined how fearless you would have been in battle against the Orcs. Whatever the story that inspired your own moral courage, it did so in a way that no lecture or bulleted list ever could.
The use of narrative to cultivate virtue is an age-old tradition used in nearly every culture and place around the world. The Puritan Horn Book, McGuffy’s readers, Aesop’s fables, New Testament parables, and classic fairy tales all use story-telling to communicate the moral and ethical expectations of society.
In his Republic, Plato recognized a child bred on inspiring and uplifting stories,
will praise beautiful things, rejoice in them, receive them into his soul, be nurtured by them, and become both good and beautiful in character.
Plato acknowledged also the dangers of depraved, or simply crass stories. Children bred on this type of narrative are
as in an evil meadow, culling and grazing much every day from many sources, and little by little collect all unawares a great evil in their own soul.
Stories ignite the moral imagination. It is one thing to announce that being merciful is good. It is another thing entirely to tell of the prodigal son, returning home in shame and despair, but greeted and rejoiced over while still out on the road. Stories give context to abstract ideas, allow the reader (or listener) to place herself in the action, and “practice” the virtues in a safe place before living them out in the real world. When a child knows what stories she is a part of, she can then decide what to do when faced with an ethical or moral decision.
Similarly, a steady diet of stories that glamorize cruelty, promote a toxic understanding of human relationships, or that simply fail to showcase what is good and true and beautiful, place the reader in a personal narrative absent of virtue.
I hope that How to Be a Hero: Train with the Saints is a source of (real-life!) storylines into which young readers can project themselves, seeing what virtue looks like in very different times and places all around the world, and figuring out what each virtue looks like in their own lives, in their own time and place.