A CALL TO CHARACTER
THE best response to a story being another story, I can't resist the temptation to begin talking about this anthology by telling a few tales of my own.
Once upon a time my father, a less than modestly successful businessman, came home from work. That's it. That's the end of the first story. He lost his job and did not go back to work for a long time, no matter how hard he tried to find another job. What sometimes happens happened next: he declared bankruptcy, and eventually he and my mother divorced. There's no moral at the end of that story either--only my life, which continued unpredictably and incalculably (as did my parents' lives).
I'd always been a reader, but at around the time my father became unemployed, when I was sixteen, I turned more purposefully to books--especially fiction, poetry, and drama. That good, bad, glad, sad, mad Hamlet; helpless, murderous Raskolnikov; Cordelia, so absolutely right and so absolutely wrong; haughty, vulnerable Darcy; monstrous, pathetic Ahab; poor, weak, stupid, heartbreaking Hurstwood! Unlike my father's bankruptcy and my parents' divorce, the incidents in those characters' lives never stood humiliatingly alone, trapped behind the bars of monotone facts. I read about situations and personalities, words and gestures, that rose up into the imagination on layers of meaning--so many layers that all these overlapping meanings could cushion a guy when he bounced off the hard rock of social reality and started falling. Art imprismed me in its extenuating colors, and the multiplicity of truth--of morals to be drawn--set me free.
I went off to college after that, and the first semester there I found myself in a course on nineteenth-century European philosophy, taught by a Professor Bridges. There were mostly working-class kids at this school, kids who, like me, wore their best clothes self-consciously and glowingly to class. Bridges himself strode into the room on the first day in a flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots, and delivered the news (this took place fifteen years ago) that he stood for radical change, in the tradition of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. That was fine with me. So long as the revolution had room for people in nice shirts and pants, I would be there. I excitedly prepared to listen to Professor Bridges blow a hole in the hard social facts, the way my favorite authors did.
But that's not what happened. Professor Bridges just kept bouncing our heads off the hard social facts. Bourgeois art--and he considered all "high" art bourgeois art--lied, deceived, oppressed, and betrayed. It offered a way out as a way of keeping us in the system. It did not accurately reflect the forces that crush, as art must always do; rather, its multiple meanings smothered the impulse toward concrete collective action. Bridges was cruder (and more casually dressed) than other supposedly radical professors I encountered when, years later, I attended graduate school in a tonier academic setting. But his crudeness was just the thing to overrun my defenses. I began to hate my bookish ambitions, and to hate the telltale formality of my clothes. He stripped me bare inside and out, and I sat there shaking with the shame and anger I'd felt when my father lost his job.
Since then, as American politics has moved to the right, I've dug in my heels left of center. And as the culture has moved to the left, I've . . . well, let's just say that I've stuck to "high" art and to its saving complexities--those complexities that are neither liberal nor conservative. Two years ago I reviewed William Bennett's The Book of Virtues for The Nation and tried to give Bennett a good taste of his own scourge. My father's experience led me to respond caustically to all that cruel blather about lack of character being a more fundamental social reality than social arrangements themselves. And yet no one had screwed things up like my father. Thus, entangled like Laocoön in those layers of meaning, I read through this new moral anthology, edited by the progressive educators Colin Greer and Herbert Kohl--a volume described by its publisher as the "liberal alternative to the bestseller The Book of Virtues"--and began to recall Professor Bridges.
IN purpose the two anthologies are decidedly similar. Both contain stories, poems, and essays meant to be read aloud by parents, so as to facilitate the moral education of children during their pre-adolescent years--though Bennett thoughtfully adds that he has included some difficult material for children to read as they grow older. Bennett's goal is "to help children achieve . . . moral literacy." Greer and Kohl aim to "encourage young people to read, talk and think about moral issues." In both books editorial commentary highlights the various moral messages that the authors intend their selections to illuminate.
Open these two big books to their tables of contents, however, and they begin to split apart like the primal elements. Bennett divides his anthology into ten sections that cover the moral "field," as he puts it, from self-discipline to faith. Greer and Kohl weigh in with sixteen sections, from courage to love, the sections themselves sorted under four main headings: "Values That Relate to One's Self," "Values That Relate to People One Knows," "Values That Relate to People One Doesn't Know and Nature," "Values That Relate to Love." The two anthologies share six values: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, courage, loyalty, and honesty. Bennett has four that didn't make it into Greer and Kohl's volume: friendship, work, perseverance, and faith. Greer and Kohl have a whopping ten that Bennett never thought of: integrity, creativity, playfulness, generosity, empathy, adaptability, idealism, balance, fairness, and love.
You know that when you have "work" in a volume without "playfulness," and "playfulness" in a volume without "work," you're looking at a genuine difference of opinion. But the gulf between The Book of Virtues and A Call to Character is at its widest when it comes to the values they share. Take the booming introduction to "responsibility" in Bennett: "Responsible persons are mature people who have taken charge of themselves and their conduct, who own their actions and own up to them--who answer for them." Here are the multiculturally sensitive Greer and Kohl on responsibility--after having specified that they compiled this anthology for children aged eight to thirteen:
Responsibility is . . . a readiness to step forward as needed, a capacity to make sound preparations for certain and uncertain prospects. . . . This means paying attention, because it is inattention to the hurt, which can be caused by thoughtless habit and ill-considered convention, that produces so much ill will and conflict between people.
In the former you hear the deadly yin of defunct entitlements, in the latter the pedantic yang of the condescending group leader. Both visions of character are essentially public visions with public aims--character as a vehicle for social change.
ONE person's concept of responsibility has often been another person's burden, and fine sentiments won't pay your health insurance. God loves the poor and helps the rich, as my paternal grandmother told me when I once asked her why she didn't lend my father money. But I marvel at how there can be such a chasm in this country over the idea of character, with liberals on one side and conservatives on the other. It speaks of an intellectual hatred between the two sides, and as Yeats wrote in "A Prayer for My Daughter," "An intellectual hatred is the worst."
I don't think of character as a public issue. The public issues that rend America are, for the most part, insoluble conflicts, beyond the art of compromise. You can't have capital punishment and not have capital punishment, have gun control and not have gun control; a fetus cannot be a little bit aborted. In public conflicts one side or the other always gains the upper hand. But civil society depends on people who, once outside the political realm, know how to abstain from demanding victory, how to embrace contradictions with Whitmanesque ardor. Unlike the capacity to choose sides in a conflict, the ability to live amid contradictions requires character. And the first step toward character is the capacity to build solitude out of loneliness, to learn how to be alone with yourself.
Greer and Kohl stand for what used to be proudly called the liberal agenda. If I were a parent--and my wife and I hope to be parents someday--I would want my children to learn the importance of taking and acting on a public stand, and on most issues I'd want them to stand beside Greer and Kohl. But when the rally was over, the chanting done, the sun setting, and my children all alone, I would want them to have good old-fashioned inner resources--for their sake, and for the sake of their society. I would want them to know and accept life's crepuscularity. I would not give them treats or favors or hugs or kisses unless they repeated after me, every morning and every night: Life is not this thing or that thing, or one thing or another thing! Life, to put it not so simply, is life.
So I would want my children to be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but never to assume that everyone else is able to do the same. I would want them to see truth sometimes as social handiwork but sometimes as an absolute. I would want them seldom to spare themselves the rod, but to go ahead and spoil the poor and the vulnerable. I would want them to care deeply, creatively, playfully, generously, empathetically, idealistically, about the people and the wider world around them, but I would want them to survive. And I would want them to flourish. But above all, I would want them to know that the future offers more than two opposing courses of possible public conduct; I would want them to live intensely through life's paradoxes and ambiguities. "If goodnesse leade him not," George Herbert has God concluding about his volatile creation, "yet wearinesse may tosse him to my breast."
Among other things, art and literature humanize us into enduring life's paradoxes and ambiguities, its setbacks, calamities, and disappointments. They teach us to be alone with ourselves, so that we might grasp our "own inborn strength," as Conrad called it, which enables us to endure what we have to endure without sacrificing identity to survival. That is character. Yet--irony of ironies--here are Bennett, Greer, and Kohl screwing a utilitarian handle onto the imagination, abusing the very faculty that most makes character possible.
No child is going to nourish character out of life's twilit nooks and crannies from reading either the conservative anthology of virtue or this recent liberal one. If these two books were all they had, kids would have to choose between Chaucer on the one hand and Langston Hughes on the other. They would find John Donne and Lord Tennyson facing off with Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney; Plato, Aristotle, and Emerson versus Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and Gandhi; the Grimm brothers' tales versus E. Nesbit's enchanting dragon stories; Goethe and Tolstoy versus Denise Levertov and Luisa Valenzuela; the Book of Exodus versus Lewis Carroll. It's as if in the deepest, most luscious and mysterious folds of the imagination, children were to find an administrative aide insisting that they sign up for either Mr. Bennett's homeroom ("Wow, what's his problem?") or Mr. Greerkohl's ("Yuck, he's always smiling").
Greer and Kohl are paragons of character; they know the pitfalls of their enterprise, yet they press on. One of the many worthwhile books that Kohl has written, Thirty-Six Children, is a marvelous, impassioned account of his experience teaching in a Harlem public school in the sixties, and I suspect that much of the passion and the commitment in this anthology come from him. A Call to Character cautions wisely and sincerely about respecting children's "complex inner lives," carefully emphasizes how "wonderful and complicated" children are, and talks about the importance of avoiding "preaching or didactic teaching" when raising "issues of concern" with children.
But the authors do protest too much. Once you start using stories to discuss "issues of concern," you begin taking the edge off that wonderfully complex inwardness--especially when you know exactly where you're headed: "A grounded understanding of social character values such as loyalty, honesty, and empathy can evolve through the conversations that reading stories makes possible." But what if a kid doesn't want to have a moral talk about what she's read? What if she reads a story chosen to illustrate empathy but remains stubbornly convinced that it's about the complicated inner life of a hedgehog named Georgina? Does she get a dunce cap? A show-and-tell trial?
Because Kohl and Greer are sensitive to the potential for impertinent readings, they've taken no chances. And because they take no chances, a better title for their anthology would have been Thirty-Six Robots. Like Bennett, they introduce their selections with little prefaces meant to isolate the moral meaning under consideration. And like Bennett's, these prefaces rarely have anything to do with the literary works they precede. Typical is the preface introducing an excerpt from Death of a Salesman, which warns, "If, like those of Willy Loman's sons, our unexamined prejudices get in the way, we can end up disconnected from others." Yet Arthur Miller's heart-wrenching play is not about unexamined prejudices. And Willy Loman's epitaph is not "Here Lies a Man Who Was Disconnected." But all that is moot, since Greer and Kohl's excerpt is from the scene where Willy begs his former boss's son to keep him on the job--a scene that doesn't even have Willy's sons in it. Throughout the anthology the contrast between the authors' prefaces and the selections themselves is nerve-wracking: it's the difference between a more perfectly ordered world as shiny as a new pair of shoes, and that precious, dirty, fraying old pair of sneakers (one of which lies hidden in shadows under the bed) that poets call the human heart.
BAD as this is, what is most surprising is A Call to Character's deep disrespect for the act of storytelling itself. Greer and Kohl speak impressively about "the power of stories to bind adults and children and teach in depth and with love." But they are so zealously open to their vision of stories as vessels of social change that they are closed to their stories' and poems' openness. Gouging brief selections out of longer works, they succeed in destroying any magic or charm that might shield their choices from their intentions. Excerpts begin bewilderingly, without any adaptation or background explanation, and stop the reader dead in his tracks.
What is anyone, let alone a child, to make of a single page from Northanger Abbey? Eight paragraphs from the complicated finale of Invisible Man? Three paragraphs from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (moral: "Deep pleasure can come in prized pursuits")? The answer is that readers are not supposed to make any sense of these selections. They are there because Jane Austen was a woman, Ralph Ellison an African-American, and Victor Hugo a chronicler of social injustice. For Greer and Kohl, female, African-American, and poor children don't have imaginations, only wounds. Thus stories can "heal," but whether or not they give pleasure is irrelevant.
Some don't even aspire to healing. Instead they teach children how ruthless life can be. Barry Lopez's pointless tale "Coyote and the Skunk Kill Game" has a dishonest skunk who blinds, and a rapacious coyote who clubs to death, some good-natured and very poignant prairie dogs and rabbits. The two murderers dig a mass grave for their victims and cook them; the skunk then eats the corpses after getting rid of the coyote on a ruse. Moral: "Calculated dishonesty can also be a form of group or clique identity, making people fear to be left out." If you're going to choose this as a bedtime story for your kids, you might as well read them the Contract With America.
Or better yet, simply listen to Henry James. He's just right for liberals (cosmopolitan, ambivalent), and perfect for conservatives, too (a classic, good manners). "We work in the dark," James wrote. "We do what we can--we give what we have." And after we have given our children all the love, protection, and guidance we are able to, the best thing we can do for them is to leave them alone in a lamplit room with Henry James--or Langston Hughes or Chaucer or Plato or Denise Levertov or the Book of Exodus or Lewis Carroll--and close the door gently behind us.
Illustration by Nancy Davis
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1996; How to Raise a Good Liberal; Volume 227, No. 1; pages 104-108.