From our earliest years, we are steeped in story. Family members, friends, books, and movies all form and fill our imagination with narrative, possibility, and new worlds. We know intuitively that story shapes us, but how? How might we think about cultivating an imagination that enlivens the mind and fortifies one’s character?
Dr. Vigen Guroian and Dr. Angel Parham are uniquely positioned to explore these questions. Dr. Guroian has addressed them in several books, including Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination – now being reissued in a special 25th anniversary edition, which we are celebrating in this Online Conversation. In her books The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature and the award-winning American Routes: Racial Palimpsests and the Transformation of Race, Dr. Parham has examined the past in order to better understand how to live well in the present and envision wisely for the future. Together, these two thinkers will help us reflect on the stories we tell – and the stories we live.
Online Conversation | Vigen Guroian + Angel Parham | March 24, 2023
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Molly. And let me add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on “Tending the Heart of Virtue” with Vigen Guroian and Angel Parham. We’re delighted that so many of you are registered and are joining us today. I believe we have close to a thousand folks tuning in from all over the world, at least 18 different countries that we know of, ranging from Ireland and Indonesia to the Aland Islands and Australia, Slovakia to South Africa. So thank you for joining us from across the miles and across the time zones. I also believe that we have at least 100 people who are joining us for the very first time. So a special welcome to both our first-time visitors and our long-distance visitors today.
If you are one of those folks who are joining us for the very first time or otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we work to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a place where leaders can gather together, whether in person or virtually, to wrestle with the big questions of life in the context of faith, and ultimately to come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope this program will be a small taste of that for you today.
It’s been said that humans are the only creatures who think in metaphors and learn through stories. And for much of human history, it was asserted, even assumed, that good stories were essential to the good life and indeed helped form and cultivate that which made life good and virtue possible. And immersing ourselves and our children in such stories was vital to the proper tending of our hearts, minds, and souls. I think it’s fair to say we’re now in a different place. Time spent in any form of reading has fallen dramatically over the last several decades, but reading literature in particular is in even steeper decline, increasingly crowded out by screen time and social media.
Moreover, many schools have abandoned the idea that education includes any form of moral formation, and stories themselves are increasingly seen as less important than the empirical or technological in helping students understand themselves and the world. But even as universities have largely redirected their priorities from the humanities to STEM education, our guests today have argued that it is largely through classic stories that the moral imagination is awakened, that virtue is cultivated, and that children are formed to not only perceive the world rightly, but act and respond wisely and thus grow into what has been called “the great and ongoing conversation.” It’s both an intriguing and deeply countercultural argument, and I am so delighted to introduce our guests today, Vigen Guroian and Angel Parham, to discuss what it means to tend the heart of virtue.
Vigen Guroian has served as professor of religious studies with a focus on Eastern Christianity at the University of Virginia and served as a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, the Center on Law and Religion at Emory University, as well, I am proud to say, a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. He’s taught numerous courses and workshops on religion and morality in children’s literature at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at Loyola College and at UVA, and is the author of nearly 200 articles on subjects ranging from children’s literature, ecology, and medical ethics, as well as several books, including Inheriting Paradise and The Fragrance of God, two volumes of Christian meditations on gardening, as well as Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination, which he recently revised and rereleased on the 25th anniversary of its publication, and which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.
Joining him is Dr. Angel Adams Parham. Angel Parham is a professor of sociology and a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. She’s also the author of several books, including the award-winning American Roots: Racial Palimpsests and the Transformation of Race, and her latest work, The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature. She’s also the co-founder and executive director of Nyanza Classical Community, an educational organization which provides curricula and programing designed to connect students from diverse backgrounds with classical learning and the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Vigen and Angel, welcome.
Vigen Guroian: Thank you.
Angel Parham: Thank you.
Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you here. So we’ll start off at the very beginning. Vigen, your work Tending the Heart of Virtue illustrates and analyzes the power of classic stories to enlighten and cultivate the moral imagination of children. But in many ways, it is also a celebration of fairy tales, which you have claimed, and I’ll quote you here, “nourish the imagination with the best food.” And you’ve also quoted Charles Dickens in saying that “in a utilitarian age of all time, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales be respected.” So why do you believe that fairy tales are so important for forming imagination and character?
Vigen Guroian: Well, recently I’ve given the talk in various versions, which I call “The Grammar of Our Lives.” And my argument in that is that the grammar is not limited to parts of speech or diagraming sentences, that the grammar in the deep sense goes to the stories that form us and are reformed and support us in the way we view ourselves as human beings, as family, and as culture. So in contemporary classical education in the early years, there’s a great emphasis on literature, particularly the Bible and the great classic myths, Roman and Greek. There’s less concentration on the fairy tales, and I think that’s because we’ve forgotten how to read fairy tales. Religious people might be fairly confident they know how to read the Bible, and they can go and study the Greek myths and figure them out, perhaps. But the fairy tales are not included as much as I would like to see them. I think they are deeply and profoundly fundamental to our culture. I don’t know that our culture would be able— where it would be without a Cinderella or an ugly duckling, for example. It’s that deep.
So part of my task has been to sort of, well, to encourage homeschoolers, classical schools, and other schools that are interested in literature and the formation, the character, of children at an early age to include more of the fairy tales and to show them how to read those fairy tales.
Cherie Harder: You know, I’d be interested in both of your thoughts on this, but, Angel, maybe we can start with you. Is there something unique about stories in terms of cultivating character? Are there things that we apprehend or understand or intuit through stories that may be less accessible to us through other forms of instruction? What’s unique about a story?
Angel Parham: It’s a good question. So I come at this from a very particular perspective, having studied sociology for so many years where we are really focusing on what’s happening in the “real world”—facts, data. And so it may seem odd, but for me the importance of stories is that they work through some of our defenses that we put up, some of the defenses we put up in terms of being governed by rationality and being objective. There’s a way in which a story touches and tugs at our hearts that it helps us to be open to truths that we’re not able to receive in other ways. And that’s what I would say.
So, many who are familiar with classical education will be familiar with the idea of educating for truth, goodness, and beauty. And I think there’s a way in which the fairy tales, they draw us in by the beauty of the language and the images that they evoke in us and the images of what we aspire to or shy away from that helps us to kind of enter into these truths and to long for this goodness. And so I agree, you know, with what my esteemed colleague says, that we ignore the fairy tales at our peril.
Cherie Harder: Vigen, I’m going to ladle an additional question on top of that one and send it to you, but I’d love to get your thoughts on that as well—in that, reading your book, one of the things that I noticed is how often the theme of seeing or seeing rightly seems to come up in the stories that you mentioned. You know, certainly in “Pinocchio,” you know, in “Cinderella,” in “The Velveteen Rabbit,” it seems like one of the many themes that’s sort of repeated throughout the stories that you mention in your work. And so would be curious your thoughts about what is it about stories that help us see more rightly.
Vigen Guroian: Because I think we are born with a narrative sense. And a culture that cuts against that, as this culture does, even in the interpretation of stories—literary criticism leaves the narrative oftentimes behind, views the narrative and the characters through particular ideological lenses, and loses much of what is the meat of narrative in the process. Robert Cole says in an article—Robert Coles, who many might know, not all, [is a] famous child psychiatrist and beloved teacher at Harvard—argues in an essay that he’s addressed to his own profession that they have ignored the narrative sense in children at their peril, that you cannot understand children until you take account of the growing narrative sense that is seated right at the start in children. And if you want to understand children, they’re going to explain themselves through stories. And in that there’s a truth that holds for adults as well.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s beautiful. Angel, I’m curious, you have been a pioneer in many ways in creating curricula and programs that have connected diverse communities to classic literature and stories. These are works that many have considered inaccessible or unrepresentative. Some have even called them oppressive. Why do you prioritize acquainting your students with classic literature and stories, and how have they responded?
Angel Parham: This is a great question. And so I guess I would hasten to say, first of all, that we have a very short memory. So that is to say that right up until the end of the 19th century, this would not have been considered unusual, especially for African-Americans, to be reading classic literature just because, you know, what we today call “classical education” was education. So there wasn’t this kind of strange division between reading the classics or not reading the classics. If you were getting an education, you were going to be reading much of classic literature. So that’s the first thing I’ll say.
So the work that I’m doing, I see it really as just kind of standing in the footsteps of those who’ve come before and just kind of inviting us to remember that. And it’s an absolute pleasure to do it and it’s absolutely necessary. So I am seeking to work with—I mean, I’m interested in the education of all students—but I do have a special heart for those who are in very difficult circumstances, whatever their racial or ethnic background, those who are not getting these stories, who are getting a kind of education that, you know, as Vigen has said, there is this kind of relentless focus on just kind of very flat interpretation or, at the higher levels, sometimes a more ideological or theory-driven interpretation. And there’s something about losing oneself in the beauty and wonder of a story, especially for kids who are struggling. It’s just so important to engage that imagination. And if they don’t have that, you know, they’re going to immerse themselves in something else that’s going to cultivate a very different kind of imagination than the moral imagination that Tending the Heart of Virtue focuses on. Because we are story driven. And so if those kids are not getting access to beautiful, nurturing stories, they’re going to have access to and create other kinds of stories that cultivate a different kind of imagination.
Cherie Harder: I’d be curious for both of you what story as a child first grabbed your imagination. What one gave you your love of reading? Vigen, maybe we can start with you.
Vigen Guroian: [I’ll take up] these two matters: I think your question also had to do with the fact that there’s a criticism of the existing canon and why don’t we go beyond it. And my argument would be, we don’t go beyond it in the way that some would like to force us to go beyond it because the grammar of our lives is rooted in those particular stories.
Now. Go to the next. What stories influenced me the most when I was a child? Stories out of the Middle East that my grandmother used to tell me. That’s what influenced me the most. That’s what I remember because I’d come down the stairs when she was visiting us, into the room in which she was sleeping, but she was never sleeping when I got there, and she’d tell me these stories. Now, you might want to ask me this. Why didn’t I include a discussion of those stories in Tending the Heart of Virtue? Well, they come out of the Islamic world. You know, Armenians lived in an Islamic world. The character of Nasreddin Hodja is fantastic. I told about ten stories like that two days ago to a fifth grade class at the classical school that my grandchildren attend in Charlottesville. But I didn’t discuss them because they are not at the heart of our culture.
And if children are going to be equipped to navigate this culture in whatever desiccated state it’s in, then they need to know those stories first. They need to know the grammar first, and then they can go out beyond that grammar if they want to. And so I’m a strong defender of the grammar. And what I mean by grammar, again, is not merely the parts of speech or diagraming sentences. It goes back to scriptures. It goes back to historic stories that have filtered through into our present time. And among those are the Bible, the great myths of the Greeks and Romans, and, my goodness, the fairy tales. The oldest known version of Cinderella comes from China, actually. And that’s seventh-century BC. [Inadible] Western culture, it was there really. And so its antiquity is as great as the myths and the scriptures. And I would say it reads, many fairy tales, read like a scripture. Or maybe the other way of saying it is the Gospels read like a fairy tale. And that’s not to say that the Gospels aren’t true. In fact, it’s to assert and reinforce the notion that the Gospels are true. Fairy tales are true.
Cherie Harder: Angel, what book opened your imagination?
Angel Parham: So I want to follow up first on what Vigen was saying about the canon and expanding the canon and where we are right now in that discussion. So the thing that I would add to that— well, first I would affirm that we do need to know those stories that are deeply embedded in and have shaped the culture. And so absolutely. But the other thing I would add is that, particularly when we’re thinking about African-American writing, both fiction and nonfiction, it’s pretty impossible to really understand that writing if you haven’t absorbed the stories that are at the center of the Western canon—because they were so steeped in them, right? In the book that my coauthor and I just have out last summer on the Black intellectual tradition, I do a chapter on Toni Morrison. Love Toni Morrison so much. But in order to understand Toni Morrison, you have to be reading the Bible. You need to be reading Homer. You need to be reading all these other classics as well as African-American folktales. So she weaves together in a brilliant way very different traditions, African and African American, you know, many different kinds of European stories. So if you try to read Toni Morrison, Phillis Wheatley, W.E.B. Dubois, all of these great writers, and you have no basis in the Christian Scriptures, Shakespeare, Homer, Moore, you know, good luck to you. So it’s really, again, it’s not an either/or. It all is woven together. And certainly there are stories from other traditions, you know, that we do want to read to our children and bring in from the Middle East or from China and so on. And, you know, I’ve certainly done that. But given where we are, having that core of understanding what has been central to the canon in the West is certainly necessary.
For me—so it’s hard to think about what was the first story. I would say a couple things come to me. So when you mentioned that you’re going to ask this question, you then said, “Oh, it’d probably be something like Raggedy Ann.” In fact, it was the Raggedy Ann books. There was a whole series of Raggedy Ann books, and I don’t remember what the series was. I think I was maybe in first or second grade. These books, they were magical. I just remember, you know, lollipops growing in the fields and, you know, like cinnamon rolls coming from the tree. Like it was just this whole— it was like, wow, I can’t believe it! It peopled my imagination and just opened up. And I just would go back every week and I could not get enough of them. So that is kind of one of the very first dawnings and what drew me in was the magic of the stories.
Cherie Harder: And just to clarify, I wasn’t saying it’s probably something like Raggedy Ann—it was Raggedy Ann for me. So— and I remember the lollipop. So they were magical and enchanting.
Vigen Guroian: To add a bit to that. I say “African American.” There’s American in it. Now, the African Americans were here long before the Armenian Americans were here. So I’m not talking about Black American literature [not belonging]. That belongs to the canon, in my view. It should belong. But remember, I’ve studied fairy tales and what is demanded of you is to do comparative studies, for example. Well, that’s just fine and dandy. But that’s not what my job is, as I see it, as a theologian and a transmitter of good stories that belong to our culture. So it’s a matter of emphasis. But Black literature is a species unto itself. It doesn’t belong to the rest of it. It doesn’t belong to the stories of Hodja. Nasreddin Hodja, “hodja” meaning “learned” in the Koran. It doesn’t belong. No, it belongs to America in a way that the stories that my grandmother told me don’t, though they were hilarious. These are hilarious stories, believe me. That’s why I remember them. But there is a difference.
Cherie Harder: You know, I’d also like to hear from both of you on this. And, Angel, maybe we’ll start with you again, in that if great books or good books or fairy tales have formational power, there also exists the possibility for books or stories to have deformational power. And sometimes what divides the deformational from the formational may be contested. I think about the fact that there are a lot of people who think that the fairy tales are violent. There are people who would critique the classics of African-American literature by saying— there’s brutal realities there, and they’re realities not everyone wants to see. So I’d be curious what both of you think about how you discern between formational stories—beyond the canon—that cultivate and tend the heart of virtue and those that could deform.
Angel Parham: Interesting. So I guess one of the things that I think about—and I think this is true both for children’s literature and for many, you know, much literature that’s meant for adults—is it seems to me when I compare, you know, just reading again the wonderful story and analysis that Vigen has in this book and the depth of those stories and what they call us to—they call us to kind of moral challenges. They call us to be better than we are, to want to be better than we are. And they call us to live out something larger than ourselves and give ourselves to some larger purpose. And when I think about some of the more popular stories today, some of the themes that come to mind for me—in fact, one major theme—is the theme that tradition and convention are stifling and bad because they cover up our true selves. That is, in order to truly be who you are, you have to break out of tradition. You have to break out of convention, and that otherwise your individuality is being smothered. So rather than finding who you are in a tradition, you know, with other people, with a larger community, giving yourself to something bigger than who you are and recognizing that you’re a small part of that—. I see that as very freeing because if I have to create everything for myself, I have to question and critique almost everything that’s been received.
Now, that’s not to say we don’t question and critique. Of course we do. You know, not everything we’re handed is great. So you do need to learn how to question and critique. But there’s a difference between a basic orientation of the world of questioning and critique, where that is kind of your whole orientation, versus understanding that you have been handed on a tradition that allows you to kind of shape a sense of self and purpose and to be oriented toward something great. And yes, there are things in that tradition you may need to question, but those are two very different ways of being oriented in the world. And I think that’s one of the key things. And it is very subtle because I think you can have lots of stories, even kind of Disney stories, that center a hero or heroine who the emphasis is on them being an individual and realizing their own individual desires. It’s not like that’s overtly a bad thing necessarily, but when that becomes kind of the dominant message over and over and over again, then I find it problematic.
Vigen Guroian: Yeah, well, speaking of Disney— Walt was a genius. And as much as I might criticize Walt on certain terms, he was a genius. And so in Snow White—he understood that story. He was raised on those fairy tales. What Dickens also said in that article that he wrote in 1850 is that if you bowdlerize these stories and instrumentalize them for your own purposes—at that time it was for the temperance movement—then we will lose these stories. And we’ve effectively lost those these stories in our culture. And Disney is the principal corruptor. Disney after Disney particularly. I mean, Disney was a genius. I mean, he gave us something we’d never seen before, and I give him credit for that. And his Pinocchio is not the same Pinocchio as Collodi’s. He’s an American Edison. Innocent. Collodi’s is an Augustinian self who is trying to find himself in relationship to his father. And you can read that metaphorically if you like. You can’t understand Collodi unless you understand that behind it is the Odyssey and Dante, which was required reading, mind you, for any Italian in the 19th century.
So what I’ve been attempting to do is to bring those stories back to life in their wholeness. And the problem is, is that virtually every picture-book version of the Grimms or Andersen or whatever is bowdlerized, is reduced. Oftentimes, sometimes, I think, to make the artist happier in some instances, and other times romantic— Disney romanticized all the fairy tales. There’s a shallowness to that, ultimately, which loses the depth of those fairy tales. I’m trying to bring to life those fairy tales in their depth. And that’s why I came to a second edition and added 120 pages to it, three new chapters. Because as I went out and spoke to parents and teachers, I realized how deprived they were and had no idea what was in these stories, nor how to teach them for that matter. And that’s what I say—our grammar is in danger. The grammar of our lives is in danger. And the notion that you can drop your tradition and be your true self is ridiculous. You lose yourself when you do that. And our culture, our society, is losing itself because we’re doing it at rapid pace, unrelentingly. And the academy is the first to be blamed. The first. And if that sounds angry, it is.
Cherie Harder: You know, Angel, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is— I saw that you are in the midst of leading your own reading group, which you’re opening up to people who basically enroll on your website. And of course, this is something we’re doing at the Trinity Forum as well. But I wanted to ask about the thinking behind that. What is it that you have found as an educator that people get out of reading stories together that they may not by just reading stories alone?
Angel Parham: Yeah. So that reading group, the one that’s on my website, the purpose is to put into conversation writers who’ve long been at the core of the canon and writers of the Black intellectual tradition, and to put them in conversation. They’re already in conversation on the pages, but many people have not seen them in conversation or don’t understand how to put them into conversation. And so they’re organized by themes on, you know, questions like what is the essence of freedom? You know, looking at what is the American project? That kind of thing is what we’re looking at.
And so in this particular reading group, it’s focused, I’d say, more on political and social thought than it is on fiction. But what I would say people get out of it reading it together is that we come together from these very different places, many of us, you know, kind of trying to figure out how to have these conversations today in a way that allows for give and take. That’s very much like, you know, kind of the mission I’ve seen you uphold in the Trinity Forum over and over again, which is how to have these conversations over sometimes difficult topics without it disintegrating into bitterness or anger or separation. And so those reading groups are really designed to do that, is to bring us together in conversation and to show us where that conversation can be had and has already been happening. And it’s been a lovely thing to see people come together that way.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers in just a moment. But before we do, Vigen, I have to ask: Many people, I think, many parents or grandparents will sort of intuitively buy into the idea that it’s important for children to read great stories, that, of course, good stories and fairy tales will nourish their moral imagination. But the intuition about the importance of great stories and fairy tales may stop there and not necessarily be seen sort of on a visceral level in their own lives. Just the fact that reading in general is down, reading literature in particular is down. And I also have at times detected a gendered aspect to this, with men in particular not necessarily recognizing the importance of literature and the potential influence or possibilities for cultivation of virtue in their own lives. You even have written an essay about why businessmen should read great literature. So before we turn to questions, I’d be interested in your thoughts about why should adults read fairy tales and great stories? And how might they tend virtue in the lives and hearts of grown ups?
Vigen Guroian: Well, to begin with, fairy tales were not invented for children, and we know that. They were brought into the nursery by the Victorians. And yes, there were geniuses, the Grimms and Andersen first among them, who went through those fairy tales and were inspired in a way to recast them, to draw from a variety of versions of these fairy tales or to create new ones. In Andersen’s case, more the latter. But I don’t think the Grimms wrote for children. They didn’t think child or adult. They had a conviction. They were profoundly Christian writers, deeply influenced by the classics and Germanic culture as well. And all of that appears in their fairy tales. And those fairy tales carry meaning beyond anything a young child can absorb. But that doesn’t mean the child can’t benefit. They can benefit immensely from it. They can follow certain child characters to a virtuous end or victory. And they do that, and they live through them in ways that expand the experience of a child, experience that is not available to a child in any way other than the stories themselves.
In adults, it’s a way of really coming to grips with the world we live in, in a way that is metaphorical, allegorical, and profoundly informative of our own existential lives and of the culture in which we live. They’re not— these stories are deep. They’re profound. And that’s what ultimately enrages me, as it enraged Dickens. You want to revise Dostoyevsky? Go try it. Do you even understand Dostoyevsky? You want to retell a Grimm’s fairy tale like “Cinderella”? Try it. See if you can do what they did. You’re not going to be able to. There are very few in our cultural history that can create literary works like the Grimms did. So there’s a hubris there. But as far as we adults are concerned, we can learn more from those fairy tales than most everything we’re reading, certainly in the newspapers. And most modern novels. So there it is.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers now. And for all of you who are watching, just a reminder, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us a sense of what some of the most popular questions are. So our first question comes from Victoria Martineau. Vigen, I’m going to throw this one to you. And she asks, “Is ‘Ugly Duckling’ considered a fairy tale? And what do you perceive as the differences between a fairy tale, a fable, a legend, a myth, and an allegory?”
Vigen Guroian: Okay, Well, do we have an hour or so to discuss that?
Cherie Harder: [Laughs.] Not really.
Vigen Guroian: “The Ugly Duckling” is a fairy tale in a most extraordinary way. Let’s get at the notion of transformations that take place in fairy tales. That’s one aspect of a fairy tale. The ugly duckling is transformed into a swan. But we know that the ugly duckling is predestined to be a swan genetically. But the way he tells the story, there’s magic in it, maybe as deep and profound and as any of the stories— the Frog prince, for example. And that’s essentially what makes it a fairy tale. There needn’t be fairies in fairy tales per se. There needs to be transformation. There needs to be a kind of magic that appears in them. And this magic oftentimes is the fairy-tale version of grace in our world. Or the demonic in our world. Yeah. So it’s also the world recast. A world— a new world brought to our attention that is like our world but, importantly, different from our world also. That is a characteristic of a fairy tale. And sometimes, as far as the genres are concerned, they shade into one another.
Cherie Harder: A question from Craig M., and, Angel, I’ll throw this one to you. Craig asks, “Our grandson always want stories told to him, but he wants ‘make-believe.’ He doesn’t want ‘real stories’—his words. How do you see kids understanding and desiring story differently than adults?”
Angel Parham: That’s an interesting one. He wants make-believe, but not real ones. So I wonder if that means— that the “make-believe” would include various fairy tales, but not kind of stories from everyday life. Or I’m not sure, you know, kind of what the distinction is there. But I take it that what this child is getting at is that he wants something that’s going to bring him out of himself and everyday life and kind of bring the magic in a sense, you know, kind of like you and I were attracted to these lollipop fields in Raggedy Ann, right? You know, something that’s going to bring you out of what is kind of just the everyday, that’s going to inspire and fire your imagination.
So one of the ways that I know that children are oriented differently towards story is that they want the same story over and over and over again. And they just absorb it, it seems, into their souls in a way that I think is different for adults. Adults are also shaped by story and we should keep reading and we should keep reading fairy tales. But children are just fixed on it. You know, when you talk about learning by heart, I think there’s a way in which children learn by heart, and a kind of double meaning of that: sometimes they literally learn it, what we mean “by heart” in terms of memorizing; sometimes they actually memorize the stories. But they also learn by heart in the sense that they are learning in their hearts. They’re taking the essence of the stories into their hearts, which is why it’s so important that they have good stories in front of them. And one of the stages I seem to remember for my children—I don’t know if this holds true for other children—but they would, as they were learning how to hold a book, I would sometimes see them holding it upside down, but “reading.” Reading the story. And they had the words memorized. And so I would kind of very gently turn it around the other way. But it just showed that they had absorbed this story so deeply in themselves that they had it memorized.
Vigen Guroian: Quickly add to this: That child referenced “make-believe.” Now, the problem is we adults don’t know what make-believe is anymore. We sort of remember it, but we can’t go back to make-believe. Not the way a child can enter make-believe. So that child was asking for a story that enabled that child to actually do make-believe. It might be to take that story somewhere else and enact it with one’s friends and leave this world and go into that make-believe world, a world that adults can’t enter. And if they try to enter it, they destroy the make-believe world. And children don’t like that. They don’t want to have adults around them when they’re doing make-believe because they know that adults are incapable of it. So that child was, in a sense, really expressing the love of making believe.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So a question from an anonymous viewer who asks, “Is there a danger of mythologies confusing children or adults about the nature of God?” Vigen, I’ll throw that one to you.
Vigen Guroian: Yeah, sure, it’s possible—because they’re powerful, those myths. John Chrysostom talked about this in the fourth century, and he was one of those who did not believe in throwing out all of the myths. He just simply said, “Well, all of these myths and these heroes in these myths, what we need to do is lead our children to the one who is the hero, the real hero. Christ.” So he had a confidence that with the proper form of catechism and teaching, that these stories could be supportive of the Gospels and supportive of the truths of the Bible and the characters in the Bible, including Christ. But yes, there is a danger. And that’s why there were some early Christian thinkers who wanted to eliminate all of that in the schooling of Christians. We’re talking about the early centuries of the church, certainly. There was a controversy over that. So, yes, it’s possible. But I think if it’s done correctly. It’s much less likely in a culture that is Christian, that has a Christian milieu. It may be more likely today, actually. Because what are these superheroes, after all? Are they really God? Are they angels? No. But they’re alternatives to the living God. There’s no question about it. And for some people, they’re virtually that. And they can be for a child. Yeah. Post-Christian world, it’s possible.
Cherie Harder: So our next question also comes from an anonymous viewer. Angel, I’ll send this one to you. And they ask, “Is there a sense in which current attention to left-brain/right-brain emphases relate to this topic of the reading, appreciating, and applying of fairy tales?”
Angel Parham: Hmm. Interesting.
Vigen Guroian: You gave her a tough one there. Not fair. Don’t ask me to answer it.
Angel Parham: [Laughs.] So I think it’s quite possible in that we are the kind of society, at least here in the United States—I know we have viewers from many different places—but in this culture, we are at a point where we really value a very rationalistic, scientific, technological, fact-based approach to things. And this is why you see, you know, the importance of STEM education everywhere. I have absolutely nothing against STEM education. I very much value science, my doctors, and so on. That said, however, I do think there’s a way in which there’s a sense that this is maybe, you know, kind of just optional or kind of frivolous or—particularly in the case of kids who are coming from difficult backgrounds, from low-income communities, who are struggling in school—there’s a sense that we don’t have time for all of that. We just need to get them up to a certain level on the test, and just get them to be able to read this kind of very depressing text. You know, I just recall from my community program helping some kids with their homework. And it is the most uninspired, you know, worksheets and, you know— but “This is the important thing. This has to be paramount. They have to learn these letters or to read these sentences.”
Now, what I would say is, of course, you need those basic skills. But what is it that really draws a child in to want to learn, that draws them in so that they’re self-motivated, so that they are desperate to learn, to read, to understand. It is not the kinds of cut-and-dried tests of knowledge, I would argue, that we are focusing on right now. Is there a time for just learning your times tables? You know, absolutely. But to kind of say, “Well, we could read nonfiction just as well as fiction.” Um, no, we need the fiction there. Certainly, we need the nonfiction primary documents for history and all of that. But there is a way in which enlivening that imagination is crucial.
I don’t know if we have time for one story about a young girl? So she was part of our after-school program and we had picked her up from school. And there was a book fair, one of those Scholastic Book Fairs, and she was looking around and she was so excited, but she didn’t get anything. And we brought her back to the program. And then she just started having all kinds of issues and acting up and, you know, just— it was out of character for her. I knew that she came from some difficult circumstances, though. So I sat her down and I said, “What’s going on? I remember you were really excited at that book fair.” And she said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Did you know that it’s possible to grow up and have a job where your main job is to read books and think about them and talk about them? And that’s what you would do all day is read books.” And her eyes grew really wide. She said, “Really?” I said, “Yeah, would you be interested in that?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, you know, that’s what I do as a professor. My whole job is to read books and think about them and talk about them.” And it just brought this perspective that she hadn’t ever considered, that that lovely world of the Scholastic Book Fair could be her future. Now, I didn’t let her in on the fact that there are also committee meetings. But, you know, the idea is it’s not only the worksheets, but what is that larger thing that’s going to create that desire that is crucial to a true kind of education?
Cherie Harder: That’s great. A question from Diane Smith. This one I’ll throw to you, Vigen. Diane asks, “G.K. Chesterton argues for mystery in his work Orthodoxy. He argues that it is the mystery in our poets, writers, and artists that can help us to understand everything by the help of what we don’t understand or a law to the mystery of fairy tales. But children’s books today seem to be pedagogic without mystery. Can you speak to the change in storytelling and how it might affect future thinking?”
Vigen Guroian: Well, when you confuse storytelling with instruction, that’s a problem. And lots of what is written for children today is to instruct. It really has limited appeal to the imagination of children nor limited power for those children to think beyond their present world and to make sense of their world in ways that that kind of instruction does not enable them to. So it’s just the utilitarian character of our age. That’s why Dickens said “in a utilitarian age”—and he’s talking about 1850, but the roots of what we’ve got now go back that far at least—so he’s saying “in a utilitarian age, the fairy tales are that much more important than they were in a pre-utilitarian age.” And if he were living today, I don’t know what he would characterize our culture as. I mean, it’s American pragmatism taken to the nth degree. And most of the preparation that we think we’re doing through education for children is oriented toward work. Not leisure either.
And I would say that, for example, as much literature as I’ve taught in the classroom and as much poetry as I have—and I’ve taught a lot—that’s not yet where I would like to lead children, because children ought to be led to the world of literature, where the literature itself is its own meaning. And not give it a purpose that belongs to the classroom even and classroom instruction. So I used to make a habit there for about a dozen years where I’d read Dickens, I’d make a promise to read one or two Dickens novels a year. And I never brought Dickens into the classroom because if I brought him into the classroom, I’d start reading Dickens the way I read Dostoyevsky. Not to say that I don’t get great pleasure out of Dostoyevsky, not to say he’s [not] one of the great novelists, but by bringing him into the classroom I almost always have to be thinking. I’ve lost the pleasure of reading. And that’s a hazard of being a teacher.
Cherie Harder: Yeah.
Vigen Guroian: The businessmen, they don’t need to hazard that. Just pick up a book and read it instead of sitting in the train going up the East Coast and wondering, “What am I going to do with my time?”, and as I said in that article years ago, dialing up anybody they can to talk to because they can’t be alone with themselves. That’s pathetic. But it’s true. You see instances of it every time you go up the East Coast in a train, particularly if you go to business class. So there it is.
Cherie Harder: Well, in some ways that’s actually a great segway—the treatment of diverted attention—to our last question, which comes from an anonymous viewer and which I’ll throw to you, Angel. And this viewer asks, “As a teacher of ancient, medieval, and early modern literature at the college level, I see a lot of my students having difficulty with maintaining an attention span for the story. They are so used to shorter-form media. What tools do you recommend to cultivate the attention span for stories, especially for adults?”
Angel Parham: Okay. That is not an easy— it’s not an easy one. So I guess I will have two responses. One, which I know this faculty member cannot do, but one is to start very young with cultivating the attention. That is something that we found when we started our program in New Orleans and we sat the kids down for story time, that this group of kids had been so plugged into media that even though [my] kids—who were at the time were home schooled would just drink up the stories and sit there for 20, 30 minutes at a time—these kids, we found that we had to actually teach and do things to help them cultivate that habit of attention. So one would be to try to get them young.
Okay. But now they’re college students and they haven’t had that. So, you know, one of the things that I try to do is—and this is part of I think what Vigen was saying—is to find some way outside of the classroom that is for its own sake to be attuned to reading or to story that gets at this idea of the joy and a different use of leisure. So one thing that I’ve done—and this doesn’t speak to the long-form issue, but I think it does speak to the idea of retraining the attention and ways of thinking about leisure for some of these larger ideas—is what I call “tea and colloquy.” And so I invited a group of students. I had eight slots where they could sign up, and this was out of about 35 students. I said, I have eight slots. You know, first come, first serve. This is something, it’s not for extra credit. You know, you’re not going to get any brownie points or extra credit or anything. You’re going to come. I am going to make cookies, homemade cookies. I’m going to make tea. And I’m going to choose a thought-provoking quote that’s very rich and deep. And we’re just going to talk about that for an hour or so and have tea and cookies. Now. So it’s not like I read a long— you know, we weren’t engaged in this long form, but I could imagine amending that to something that does cultivate this longer attention. So maybe it is, maybe it’s reading it aloud, like the college students come, tea, cookies, whatever you want to have, and maybe you are going around and reading aloud or maybe you yourself are reading it aloud. And it has to be something that really captivates the attention, but that’s also just leisure. So you’re not being graded on this. I am just inviting you to come and take pleasure. Take sensual pleasure in the food and the drink. Take pleasure in the conversation. Take pleasure in the text or the story. That, I think, if there were more room for that, where it’s not graded, but we are trying to cultivate a different approach to what is good for leisure.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Vigen, Angel, thank you so much. And in just a moment, I want to give both of you the last word, but before I want to share a few things with all of you who are watching in terms of different invitations to extend.
Immediately after we conclude, you’ll have an opportunity to fill out a feedback form. We really appreciate you doing this. We read every one. We try to incorporate your suggestions to make these Online Conversations ever more valuable, and as a small token of our appreciation for you filling out that feedback form, we will send you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading, digital copy of a Reading, of your choice. There are several Readings we recommend that would really serve to kind of deepen today’s discussion. One of them is George MacDonald’s “The Golden Key,” which is— George MacDonald, of course, is an author that Vigen mentions many times throughout Attending the Heart of Virtue. Others that we would recommend include “Brave New World,” Madeleine L’Engle’s “Bright Evening Star,” “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” and Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” as being ones that perhaps would be particularly germane to our conversation today.
In addition, we will be sending around an email tomorrow to everyone who registered with a edited video link, as well as other readings and resources to go more deeply into this topic. So we would welcome your sharing the link with others. Start a conversation, perhaps have your own tea and colloquy over some of the ideas raised, and we hope that that will be a resource for you.
Cherie Harder: We also wanted to invite each of you to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help make the mission of the Trinity Forum to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought leadership possible. In addition to being part of the community, there are many benefits of being a member of the Trinity Forum Society, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated articles, and as a special incentive for anyone joining the Trinity Forum Society or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Vigen Guroian’s revised updated book on its 25th anniversary, Tending the Heart of Virtue. So would very much welcome your participation and hope you will avail yourself of that option.
Coming up next week, at the same time, we’ll be hosting Jessica Hooten Wilson to discuss her new book, Reading for the Love of God. Later next month, we will be hosting Alan Noble on the burden of living and the goodness of God. And for all of our friends who are in the Nashville area, we will be in Nashville in person on April 5th, hosting poet Dana Gioia and visual artist Mako Fujimura on the topic of “Can Beauty Save the World?” If you are in or near Nashville at that point, we would love to have you join us.
And finally, as promised, I wanted to give the last word to Vigen and Angel. Vigen?
Vigen Guroian: Did you want us to give you a passage or something? That is. Is that what you’re asking for?
Cherie Harder: Sure. Whatever you’d like to leave the audience with.
Vigen Guroian: All right. You mentioned Flannery O’Connor. And mind you, Flannery O’Connor has been driven out of the university. And I could not teach Flannery O’Connor at the University of Virginia any longer because she puts the idiom of the time into her characters. Yeah.
Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning. But for the fiction writer himself, the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction. And when you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure that the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. The story is the way to say something that couldn’t be said any other way.
Cherie Harder: Angel?
Angel Parham: Thanks. I am going to end with Emily Dickinson because she is the woman who really spoke to me as a moody adolescent. I just loved everything about her. So this is a poem some may have heard, very short, but I think it really communicates the importance of story: “There is no frigate like a book.”
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse made the poorest take
Without a press of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
Cherie Harder: Vigen and Angel, thank you so much.
Vigen Guroian: Thank you.
Angel Parham: Thank you.
Cherie Harder: Thank you to all of you who have joined us today. Have a great weekend.