Virtue and Moral Imagination


What did you learn in school today?

Well it sure as heck wasn’t virtue. Every parent who sends their children to school wants to know what is happening in that classroom. I suspect that this curiosity arises from experience of sweet Sally and jovial Johnny turning into an up and coming star for an episode of “Beyond Scared Straight.” What exactly goes on in schools across the country where all the post-graduation parents have an almost universal buyer’s remorse when it comes to the public education to which they entrusted their children?

One way to approach this subject would be to point at the curriculum itself, or the methodological approach of the teachers, heck, we could even blame the other kids for being a bad influence on our own. But what really seems to be at the root cause of this seemingly universal problem, is that the very culture itself lacks almost entirely, the promotion of virtue. I think that blaming all of the problems of our children on the school system is a myopic understanding of what has become a cultural problem.

Our children suffer because they lack a moral imagination, and in lacking a moral imagination they are not equipped to be virtuous. Heidi White writes that the moral imagination is,

The part of us that sees the world in terms of goodness. For instance, the moral imagination
rejoices when the hero rescues the princess and the wimpy kid stands up to the bully. It
recoils when a character lies, schemes, or cheats, or when the powerful prey upon the weak.
Most of all, the moral imagination, without even knowing it, waits patiently throughout the
arc of every story for the hero to destroy the monster, whether dragon or evil stepmother or
poverty or depression, through heroic actions of courage and sacrifice.(1)

Pastor Matt Davis, Reformed Baptist Church of Helena, MT

When I was in the second grade at a small Christian school in Alaska we had a good old fashioned bully who picked on everyone in our class of about 15 students. We students all lived in terror of recess and lunch time when this kid would start his daily routine. It wasn’t just name calling, he was literally beating people up, holding us on the ground, taking people’s things, etc. I came home one day from school and talked to my Dad about this problem and was promptly removed from the house to be given boxing lessons in the backyard far from the prying eyes of my dear Mother. My Father motivated me to act courageously in the face of this bully by appealing to my favorite movie at the time, Davey Crockett. He pointed to the scene where Davey takes on a bully named Bigfoot Mason and this set the stage for an act of virtue.

The next day, the school bully came to pick on me and I punctually punched him as hard as I could, in the ear. My Dad had instructed me to hit him in the nose, but I guess my boxing wasn’t very accurate. But no matter, that one punch was the end of it, a single punch to the ear and he went down in a flood of tears and I was sent home for a week. When I returned to school the next week I was greeted at the door by the whole class who thanked and congratulated me and exclaimed loudly that this “bully” hadn’t picked on anyone since I had punched him. And for the rest of the year he never picked on a single classmate, even once.

Vigen Guroian writes,

Where there is no real moral imagination, itself a form of vision, the people will become
captives of corrupt and corrupting forms of imagination, for while imagination as such
may be an innate human capacity, it needs proper nurture and cultivation. If the tea rose is
not properly attended it withers and the thistle grows in its place. If the moral imagination
is not fed by religious sentiment and supported by reason, it will wither and be replaced
by corrupt forms of imagination.(2)

A moral imagination is this foundational basis for the level of virtue in the character of every person; the degree to which it is nourished is the degree by which we make decisions to act in accordance with virtue. Without a properly cultivated moral imagination we act knowingly or ignorantly, driven by the impulses of our corrupt hearts; we act selfishly thinking only of the treasures we can gain or what pains we can avoid. By removing religion and reason from the curriculum of life and culture we leave a vacuum that is then promptly filled with the irrational worship of self.

For those sold on the basics of Classical Christian education, we see this whole idea of cultivating our children with religion and reason as the basis for their being equipped to be virtuous people in a world that is loudly screaming for them to act selfishly. Through story and religion we teach that it’s virtuous to defend yourself and others from evil people, even if it does, and will cost you dearly. It is also the reason that most of Jesus’ moral teachings were either introduced or supported by a parable. The story exemplifying virtue and applauding it, gives us a hook to hang our hats upon when faced with ethical decisions that go beyond, “Don’t do that or you’ll get into trouble!”

Math, grammar, science, and history are certainly important subjects for a student to learn and master, but to what end? What is the point of all this learning if it only serves to dig a deeper hole of selfish and self-centered lifestyles? What is the point of mastering topics if we are only ever creating better equipped moral delinquents?

This takes us back to a cultural dilemma that we face, wherein the only reason we can offer for educating children is so that they can go to college, get a job, and make money. Pragmatism rules the day and thus the flower of virtue fades and society becomes nothing more than a parched desert of virtue-less money making schemes coupled with the creation of products that exist to serve increasingly wicked desires.

So we see, it’s not so much what’s being taught in the public school system, it’s what’s not being taught at school or sadly even at home. It is what rules the ‘culture of self’ that contributes to the moral denigration of our young people. What did I learn at school that day in second grade? First, a punch to the ear is almost as effective as one to the nose; and most importantly, that being courageous in the face of evil is to be applauded, even if it gets you into big trouble.

In the meantime, go to church, love the truth, and help your neighbor.

[Publisher’s Note: This article was contributed by Ps. Matt Davis, Reformed Baptist Church of Helena]


(2) Vigen Guroian, Rallying the Really Human Things: the moral imagination in politics, literature, and everyday life (ISI Books, Wilmington, DE, 2005), 49-50.


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