Why Character Education Through English Literature?

Schools teach (and students learn) good character in all sorts of ways: through their approach to behaviour, the academic curriculum, the human interactions that occur throughout the school day, and their home lives.  But within the curriculum, one of the best places to teach character is literature classes. Equally, to do well in English, students need to evaluate characters’ actions and motivations as well as evaluating the consequences of actions. Virtue literacy and ethical evaluation are essential aspects of English.

C. S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University after many years of teaching English at Oxford University. He explained:

In reading great literature I become a thousand men [people] and yet remain myself

(Lewis, 1961)

Reading literature also helps us ‘read’ people well in life. Through literature, we can learn about what it means to be human.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Professor Lewis reflected that:

In reading great literature I become a thousand men [people] and yet remain myself

(Lewis, 1961)

Through literature, we learn about the motives for action and that the ultimate measure of our character is not just what we do, but why we do it:

Right actions done for the wrong reasons do not help to build the internal quality of character called a ‘virtue’, and it is this quality of character that really matters

(Lewis, 1952)

In the ‘secondary world’ of the imagination, significant moral and character education occurs (see Pike’s Ethical English, 2015). Learning about vice and character flaws helps students to understand Shakespearean tragedy and other works of literature. Using terms such as fortitude, for instance, and understanding why this is not quite the same as courage, enables students to evaluate characters in a range of literary works.

Learning about, evaluating and describing character is one of the main tasks of the English Literature student.