As Pinocchio's nose grows, so do values

The classic fairy and fantasy tales that grown-ups read to children pass along the meaning of morality, says a theologian and ethicist at Loyola.

January 17, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff

Vigen Guroian, a theologian and ethicist who teaches at Loyola College in Maryland, has read the important tomes by the authorities in his field. He has even written a couple of them.

But to his mind, one of the best sources of moral wisdom lies in the classic fairy tales read to us when we were children.

Not the sanitized Disney versions, mind you. But classics like the stories by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," and the story of the wooden puppet who wanted to become a real boy, "Pinocchio."

It is through hearing those stories, often read by an important adult like a parent or grandparent, that children exercise their "moral imagination" and do not merely learn about virtue, but have it instilled into their character.

"The great fairy tales and fan-tasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, where characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong or heroes and villains contest the very fate of imaginary worlds," Guroian writes in "Tending the Heart of Virtue," his most recent book.

The book has gained a particularly enthusiastic audience among parents who home-school their children. Guroian's publisher, Oxford University Press, has ordered a second printing.

Guroian, a 50-year-old professor who delivers lectures wearing his signature bow tie, has written three books on Christian ethics, and has also published extensively on the Orthodox Christian church (he is Armenian Orthodox).

But in many ways, "Tending the Heart of Virtue" is his most personal work. He developed many of his theories while teaching at Loyola and at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University, where he is also on the faculty.

He read many of these same stories to his son, Rafi, and his daughter, Victoria. His own love of folk tales began as he grew up, hearing not just the classic fairy tales but also yarns told to him by his maternal grandmother.

"She told me humorous tales, which I tell in my classroom, about a particular character called Nasreddin Khoja," an Islamic holy man who was also quite a trickster, he says. "Then she'd tell me some kind of moral tales, often in Armenian. As I got older, she told them in English as well.

"Of course, they lost something in the translation."

Guroian recalls his grandmother's visits to his childhood home in Stamford, Conn., when they had time by themselves in the mornings. "If she came to visit me in our home for a couple of weeks, I would run down to her room in the mornings before school, before the school day started and I had to be off," he says. There, he would snuggle under the covers with his grandmother, who was always waiting for him, already awake, ready with another tale.

Just like many of the classic fairy tales, his grandmother's stories were not always light and sweet, but sometimes had the hard edge of the reality of a cruel world. About 1915, when she was a 12-year-old girl growing up in historic Armenia, at that time under Ottoman rule and a part of Turkey, "She used to take supplies to the resistance fighters in the hills," Guroian says. "Some of the stories came from that."

Guroian argues that these stories are essential tools in helping children -- or even adults -- to learn to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and to inculcate virtues like courage and honesty. This process was clearly demonstrated, he says, when he took a group of his Loyola students several years ago to St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, where they read "Pinocchio" with a group of fourth graders (including his daughter, Victoria).

After they read the story, the college students and the fourth-graders broke into groups, where they made posters and performed skits based on the plot.

The problem was that the college students had but faint memories of the intricacies of the plot. The youngsters, on the other hand, had it down cold, remembering exact details of Pinocchio's movements and interactions in the story.

The reason the fourth graders could recall the story in such detail "was not a process of memorization in the formal sense," Guroian says. "It was an appropriation of the story as a resource for them in their young years to discern right from wrong and to come to some conclusions and judgments about Pinocchio's own behavior, and to draw some comparisons with their own lives."

His college students, however, were looking for abstractions, searching for the basic point or meaning of the story.

"They'd been taught that all the detail is not so much what's important, but rather can you distill something out of it that you can sort of summarize," he explains.

"You miss a lot if you read narrative that way, particularly one that is deceptively simple. But it's not if it's a good story. It might be deceptively simple, but it could be profound in its insights into human nature, human conduct and human morality."

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