Just came back from grading. I couldn't be happier. And now--Dammit!--after two rewrites, and a perfect score, you'd better believe I'm going to post.
Study of cognitive development in the maturing human brain reveals that Confucius, the great moral teacher, was wrong. Literary education is not necessary for moral training.
A child acquires the foundational moral principles of fairness, self-control, exhibiting respect, sharing, and empathy as early as toddlerhood. This occurs whether she is exposed to literature or not. (Borba, 2001.)
Morality, defined as an individual’s “concept, reasoning, and action pertaining to welfare, rights and fair treatment of persons,” is based solely on human thought and action. While books contain themes and depictions of morally implicated behaviors, they cannot think nor act, and are, therefore, neither moral nor immoral things. (Nucci, 1997)
Oscar Wilde said, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” But there are obvious benefits noted in correlating the study of literature with the development of human moral cognition.
Granting the minimal formative level of moral development, a preschool-aged child can be expected to begin making inferences and exhibiting reasoning skills in conjunction with the books read to her. One might imagine the child rapt with Sam I Am and his plate of green food. However, if War and Peace were story-time fare she would likely tantrum before Pierre walks into Anna Pavlovna’s parlor.
This is due to a child’s inability to grasp complex moral themes until she reaches corresponding milestones in her cognitive development. Once these are attained, it is reasonable that the child nurtured in a reading environment will apply her increased critical thinking skills to her comparatively maturing studies.
This window of cognitive development remains open for roughly 18 years until the child reaches 21. During this period, gains are made to include comprehension and value of conflict resolution, empathy, anger management, fair negotiation, and utilizing self-control. Each concept is developed in cognitive increments that mark maturing levels of moral and emotional capacity regardless of literary exposure. (Borba, 2001.)
But the child’s cognitive awareness undergoes intriguing interchange with her literary studies during this growth. As she reads, the developing adolescent’s brain is subjected to scenarios and ideas foreign to context of home or community. These test the brain’s newly emerging concepts of right and wrong, reinforcing cognitive formulation of morality. Thematic elements help her to develop an understanding of her personal moral response to complex situations. Thus, the moral analysis stimulated by literature challenges a child’s awareness of herself and the world without requiring that she leave home.
This demonstrates that while books, themselves, are unnecessary for the child’s cognitive moral development, they do provide safe augmentation of her developing moral construct.
To give Confucius his due, his assertion of a mentor’s role in this interchange is critical. Children left to their own devices might not possess wisdom to make beneficial literary choices. They may require help deciphering what they read. Perhaps most critically, children may need guidance to assimilate difficult moral themes; especially those young persons whose personal lives present elements of abuse, neglect or hardship that may hinder healthy moral perspectives.
Mentors fill this need by assisting in literary selection, but without obstructing pupils’ self-determination. They guide discussion, pose questions, and heighten insight. Mentors reinforce the moral development of pupils by avoiding the didactic, which potentially weakens the child’s feelings of security in making moral judgments on her own. The mentor facilitates establishment of the early partnership between cognitive moral development and literary study; in essence he is the correlating force between books and morality.
Though results will obviously be case-by-case, it is reasonable to anticipate that the literary child, guided by a sensitive, skilled mentor will develop moral skill sets to reason and react fairly in a broad set of circumstances throughout her life. Though her morality will develop regardless of her exposure to literature, the augmenting benefits of its influence in her moral development are significant.
Borba, Michele, Ed. D. “7 Deadly Myths About Raising Moral Kids.” Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids the Right Thing. Jossy Bass Publishers. 2001.
Nucci, Larry. Moral Development and Character Formation. University of Illinois at Chicago. 1997.