Rediscovering the Pedagogical Power of Narnia

Written by on September 23, 2020

My mother read The Chronicles of Narnia to my brother and me at night, while the four of us—my father half-listening while reading a novel of his own—lay on my parents’ enormous bed. I remember such strong emotions with the series. When we got to The Last Battle, the final installment, I felt warm affection for the foolish donkey Puzzle, grief at the fall of Narnia, sharp frustration at the dwarves who couldn’t see the truth of a remarkable feast set before them.

As a parent myself now and a teacher and an Anglican priest, I’ve been revisiting the Lewis of my childhood. What did I learn in Narnia? What virtues did I come to value on the other side of that wardrobe? How powerful is Narnia at moving, molding, and directing young hearts?

Quite, according to a new character curriculum, Narnian Virtues. Designed by education professors Mark Pike and Thomas Lickona, the curriculum teaches “universal virtues” to children ages 10 to 14 using The Chronicles of Narnia. It is supported in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and has been taught at a variety of schools, both secular and christian, as part of a pilot program designed to test the possibility of teaching virtue.

According to the educators’ vision, this program is not aimed at behavior management, which is often taught in schools. Rather, it is designed to teach students “to know the good, to love the good, and to do the good.” As the literature says, it is premised on the belief that “the Narnia novels have the capacity to motivate a wide range of readers to make efforts to develop the will as well as the skill needed for good character.”

The qualitative results of the pilot program show the curriculum has a positive impact. Many students describe increased self-awareness of their actions and a desire to grow in virtue. The quantitative data is less clear. Lickona characterized the results as meaningful but ultimately modest—“statistically significant” but not necessarily educationally significant changes. The assessment shows real gains in knowledge of virtue. But the results are much more ambiguous when it comes to doing good and loving good. The impact on the head is clear; on hand and heart, less so.

Perhaps the key word is capacity. The novels surely have the capacity to motivate readers toward good character. Whether they will or not is much more tenuous. It may depend on what’s actually happening in the classroom where this character curriculum is being used.

As Pike and Lickona write, the head-heart-hand model of character education needs curriculum that instructs, inspires, and guides students in virtue. But teachers are an important part of education too. Taken alone, no curriculum—not even a curriculum as thoughtful and faithful as Narnian Virtues—can create a virtue-forming school environment. The curriculum must be taught.

One of my colleagues at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently demonstrated to me how powerful and transformative teaching literature can be. He had a class of ninth graders reading Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. A character in the story spends his long imprisonment making shoes. In the many hours at his shoe bench, he also fashions a “false self” that allows him, my colleague told his students, to “literally forget who he is.” The character ends up mentally imprisoned even though he’s physically free.

My colleague then used the story as a tool for character formation, prompting students to “see if we have any shoe benches of our own.” Almost all identified some form of technology or social media as a personal “shoe bench,” a site of distraction that feels liberating but ultimately is not.

Stories invite self-reflection—but indirectly. They help us see ourselves more clearly by bypassing self-exonerating justifications. That can, with the assistance of a wise teacher, lead to character formation.

With the right teacher, Narnian Virtues offers similar possibilities. The most compelling lesson plans prompt students to examine their own shortcomings in discussions of episodes in The Chronicles of Narnia.

One activity, titled “What’s Your ‘Turkish Delight’?,” draws on Edmund’s encounter with the White Witch and his subsequent addiction to her enchanted candy. Edmund is unable to see the witch for who she is, so he is vulnerable to her manipulation, partly because of his youth. The deeper cause, however, is his flawed character. His malformation led to trivial cruelty in England; in Narnia it leads to disaster.

Edmund pursues Turkish Delight single-mindedly, betraying his own family and nearly destroying himself in the process. It is both striking and unsurprising that students, when asked to identify their own “Turkish Delight” in the pilot programs, frequently pointed to the use of smart phones and the internet. At the end of the activity, students are instructed to develop strategies for personal improvement.

This curriculum is, according to Pike and Lickona, not religious. Both are adamant this could be taught even in secular American schools, where the reigning interpretation of the First Amendment disallows religious education.

And perhaps Lewis, who did not think that moral law was an exclusively christian affair, would agree with them. Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis and a consultant on the character curriculum, told me that The Chronicles of Narnia are not explicitly christian. In fact, “there’s nothing that requires a christian reading of the books.” Likewise, he said, Narnian Virtues is not a religious curriculum but “a project about ethics.”

The designers believe that one can distinguish between being good and being christian, and the Narnian Virtues curriculum aims to make students good. They do provide a supplement for christian education, which points out textual links to christian doctrines.

There are obvious theological resonances—Aslan’s substitutionary atonement in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example, or Edmund’s temptation to accept an offer of kingship from the White Witch, which mirrors Eve’s temptation when the serpent tells her that “ye shall be as gods” in Genesis 3:5 (KJV). Lewis’s imagination is deeply formed by his Christocentric theology.

And yet The Chronicles of Narnia are also fascinated by the ample possibilities of misperception. The stories narrate, again and again, how identical phenomena can be seen in diametrically opposite ways. Those obstinate dwarves drinking wine but tasting only brackish water, who so frustrated me as a child, are just one example. The dwarves cannot experience Aslan’s good feast because they will not submit to Aslan.

In Narnia, you cannot see what is good unless you see who is good. To rightly perceive the gifts of God is to rightly perceive God. Conversely, to reject his gifts is to reject him. At the end of the day, this is really what it means for Narnia to be, as the curriculum designers say, a morally serious universe.

The Chronicles of Narnia, in fact, question the value of character formation in and of itself. Consider Eustace’s narrative arc in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace experiences the voyage as misery rather than adventure. A liar, whiner, and thief, he is repugnantly selfish and resolutely self-righteous until he awakes to find himself transformed into a dragon—the result of his “dragon-ish thoughts and behaviours,” the Narnian Virtues curriculum notes. The “transformation” is presented less as a change than as a disclosure of the truth of his character. He has become externally what he already was internally—in Lewis’s words: “a monster cut off from the whole human race.”

Eustace faces up to the truth of who he is and endeavors to change. He is successful—to the point that he becomes less dragonish as a dragon than he was as a boy. Ward notes that Eustace is “nicer as a sinner who knows he’s a sinner than he was as a sinner who didn’t know he was a sinner.”

But being good does not save him. Eustace needs Aslan’s claws to tear away his scales, and he needs a baptismal immersion of sorts to be remade a boy. Which is not to say that his character formation doesn’t matter. It prepares him in the story to be the kind of dragon who could accept a savior and ask to be changed into a boy.

Loving the good prepares one to love Jesus, just as loving Jesus compels one to pursue goodness. Theologically speaking, our salvation and our final end are inextricably linked. Character formation can’t be neatly separated from religious reorientation. And The Chronicles of Narnia, inasmuch as they can be powerful educational tools, are also means of grace.

The stories endure primarily because they are delightful stories, but in hindsight I see that part of the delight flows from Lewis’s understanding of human character. The adventures rivet because they are so consequential for the adventurers: Not only their physical lives but their moral character and indeed their eternal destinies hang in the balance. The characters engage most profoundly not when good characters battle evil ones but when good and evil war within the persons themselves.

In Narnia we find embodied the baffling mystery of the human condition—the gospel truth of our genuine freedom and desperate need. In Narnia we learn that we cannot save ourselves. Above all, in Lewis’s stories we find an image of a king—not safe but good, not tame but beautiful. And as our children come to love Aslan, they may thereby learn better to love the true king.

Mark Perkins is

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