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Cultivating Virtue in Narnia

By Fr. Mark Perkins

I wrote my initial drafts of “Rediscovering the Pedagogical Power of Narnia” (Christianity Today, 23 Sept. 2020) way back in January and February, as the COVID-19 pandemic was transforming from a news story about China into a life-altering, worldwide pandemic. The coronavirus dramatically changed the publication plan for the essay; more importantly, however, it has also highlighted the importance of the Narnian Virtues curriculum and character education more broadly. If, as the Narnian Virtues pilot program, my colleague’s work at The Covenant School, and my own teaching and ministry experience all suggest, social media and screen addiction are among the greatest contemporary challenges to virtue formation, then the COVID-19 pandemic may have a particularly pernicious effect on the character development of today’s students. And if, in the hands of the right teacher, stories like C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities can prompt students to confront their addictions, technological or otherwise, then character education programs such as the Narnian Virtues curriculum may be more critical than ever.

In what follows, then, I deepen my analysis of the design and effectiveness of the Narnian Virtues curriculum from an educator’s perspective.

“I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.” -The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The Narnian Virtues project was conceived by Mark Pike, professor of education at the University of Leeds (UK), through work for his book Mere Education: C.S. Lewis as Teacher for our Time. He was also inspired by a similar “Knightly Virtues” project developed by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham (UK). Thomas Lickona, professor of education emeritus at the State University of New York at Cortland and a pioneering scholar who has written nine books on character formation, helped design the psychological framework and the psychometric instruments used to assess the curriculum’s impact on students.

Narnian Virtues builds upon a broader character-education movement spearheaded in part by Lickona’s work over the past four decades. Character education of this sort moves beyond shallow and short-sighted attempts “at mere ‘behavior management,’” as I noted in my piece for Christianity Today. “Rather, it is designed to teach students ‘to know the good, to love the good, and to do the good.’” In my nine-year teaching career and in my five years as a parent, I have often found myself so consumed with an immediate desire to modify behavior that I lose sight of the deeper, slower, and more fundamental work of character formation at the level of the heart. By contrast, my upbringing in a worldview-obsessed branch of evangelicalism tended to conceive of faith in heady terms of intellectual belief, while simultaneously casting it as always in opposition to works, thereby severing heart and head from hand. In short, I suspect that many parents and teachers expend most of their emotional energy trying to modify behavior — while holding to a theology that almost ignores behavior altogether. By contrast, the model of character education promoted by Pike, Lickona, and their collaborators promises a holistic approach grounded in their understanding of virtue as a habit — “a reasonably stable pattern of behaviour, inspired by virtuous motives, that contributes to our flourishing as individuals and that of people around us.” Students must not only understand but also care about virtue — and act upon it.

Led by Pike and Lickona, the project team designed a curriculum for children ages 10 to 14 to be taught in twelve-week-units across three consecutive years. First-year students read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the second year, they study Prince Caspian, and in the third, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. At the center of the project are six “universal virtues” present in the Narnia stories — love, integrity, and the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, fortitude, self-control, and justice. (In my next piece, I will analyze these virtues and their purported universality in more depth, considering their relation to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity — as well as the emphasis on “self-control” rather than the classical cardinal virtue of temperance.) Each week students focus on an excerpt or set of excerpts highlighting a specific virtue (or a corresponding vice) in action. Curriculum resources include a teacher handbook, a student workbook for use in class, and a “character passport” for students to use at home.

The designers scaled their three-year curriculum to age carefully. The first-year study focuses only on the six core virtues, highlighting each through two different excerpts. The second and third years, however, expand the six virtues to twelve — including curiosity as a subset of wisdom, humility as a subset of integrity, gratitude and forgiveness as subsets of love, and courage and hard work as subsets of fortitude. The first year curriculum mentions the distinction between fortitude — persevering in the face of adversity, as in Lucy’s sticking to her story about Narnia despite her siblings hostile disbelief — and the narrower category of courage, seen in Peter’s battle with the wolf when he acts despite great fear. Given the nature of the Narnia stories, the examples of courage primarily involve physical danger, but the curriculum designers show how students may need courage in the face of social hostility or peer pressure. In the second- and third-year lesson plans these subtle distinctions are more fully fleshed-out, an appropriate development given age and the potential to build upon understanding gained in previous years.

The best lesson plans help students draw explicit connections between the flaws of characters in the books and their own shortcomings. I previously described the “Turkish Delight” lesson in the first-year curriculum. Year three offers a similar exercise titled “What’s Your Dragon?” drawn from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader — which famously begins, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Eustace’s character shifts from selfishness to self-awareness by means of a transformation into a dragon, and then finally to salvation and redemption through the intervention of Aslan. As with the “Turkish Delight” lesson, students collaborate with their families to determine their own particular “dragon” (“a bad habit that keeps you from being your best self in some situations”) and then come up with an improvement plan. The exercise encourages students to pursue goodness — although, outside of “Christian Message” supplemental material, it leaves Eustace’s regenerative encounter with Aslan unexplored.

Though well-designed and carefully considered, the lessons as a whole do have a somewhat “episodic” feel. Journeying through the curriculum would no doubt deepen one’s knowledge and exercise of the virtues, but for better or worse each week’s lessons constitute largely self-contained episodes. A final project in which students reflect upon their understanding and practice of virtue (and through which teachers may assess the same) would add a sense of finality and perhaps prompt more backwards-design in lesson-planning.

“It would be nice, and fairly nearly true, to say that ‘from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses… But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.” -The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

As noted, the qualitative results of the Narnian Virtues pilot program — illustrated by excerpts of interviews with all students and a handful of parents — affirm the curriculum’s positive impact on students. While the quantitative data affirms substantial growth in virtue literacy (the head), the impact on heart and hand “is less clear. Lickona characterized the [quantitative] results as meaningful but ultimately modest—’statistically significant’ but not necessarily ‘educationally significant’ changes.”

By way of explanation, the program designers noted the time limits of the curriculum — which in each year amounts to about two hours per week over the course of twelve weeks — as well as the potentially virtue-suppressing challenges of middle school. In addition, one might question the extent to which any form of psychological assessment can capture genuine changes of the heart. While Lickona emphasized the great strides in character assessment tools since the 1980s, he also acknowledged constraints as the pilot program scaled up after its first year. The expansion of test schools required a shift to “briefer and less generative” student responses, which were necessarily less sensitive to nuance. Pike similarly highlighted the limitations of “our psychometric instrument, which was self-assessment.” One might, for instance, be more generous with oneself before a period of virtue education and serious self-reflection than after, consequently skewing the data. Pike also pointed to the impressive gains in more easily assessed “head” knowledge, noting the “real paucity in terms of the language of virtue that 11-year-olds had to start with.” Many students simply “did not know what a ‘virtue’ was” at the start of the program.

As I stated, the context in which the curriculum is taught — “teachers and their classrooms and schools, students and their families and churches” — matters at least as much as any curriculum. At Covenant, we spoke of the ideal — all-too-illusory in reality — of a three-legged stool of education: a partnership in child formation among school, family, and church.

“He didn’t call his father and mother ‘Father’ and ‘Mother,’ but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotallers and wore a special kind of underclothes.” -The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The curriculum repeatedly affirms the family as “the first school of virtue” and “the cradle of learning.” After an initial one-year pilot program, the designers worked to encourage parental involvement by creating a “character passport” for home use, which requires family collaboration to complete. Parent interviews convey the robust potential of this “Home-School Partnership,” but the sample size — twelve parents who volunteered to discuss the project — rules out broader conclusions.

Lickona admitted that it “turned out to be harder to involve the homes” than they’d hoped. Pike tells a story that highlights both the difficulties and potential of family collaboration. His youngest son happened to be in one of the pilot-program classes studying The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When he and his son collaborated on an improvement plan related to their respective “Turkish Delights,” Pike admitted his own need for a better diet and more exercise and agreed that he too would commit to curbing his own “Turkish Delight.” When, some weeks later, his son came home and asked him, “So how are you doing with your Turkish Delight, dad?’” Pike realized to his dismay that he had entirely forgotten about it. Ironically, in the busyness of organizing and monitoring the pilot program, he had gone in the opposite direction, exercising less and eating worse than he had before! On the one hand, Pike’s story shows how parental collaboration can foster deeper student engagement — and how it has the potential to impact whole families and not just isolated students. On the other hand, it reflects the challenge of engaging and sustaining the involvement of busy parents.

The Narnia stories are a self-contained universe; good can only come of having students read them. But even a curriculum as thoughtful and faithful to the spirit of the stories as this risks misuse in the wrong hands. While students were given collaborative family assignments, and the teacher handbooks call for peer-group “accountability buddies,” the curriculum ultimately depends upon teachers who train and hold students accountable. As Lickona said, “In the hands of a deeply committed teacher… it takes off! And something beautiful happens!” But it was also apparent that not all teachers and not all schools were equally committed.

As in all education, nothing misleads so disastrously as a misguided teacher — and nothing kills wonder quite so effectively as an indifferent or hostile one. In an ideal situation — presented in an ably guided classroom to a student from a well-formed family grounded in a Christ-centered parish — the potential of the curriculum is limitless. Ideal situations do tend to produce ideal results! Unfortunately, we all inhabit less-than-ideal realities. Most of the time, at least one or two legs of the school-family-church stool are a bit shaky — and the coronavirus pandemic has severely tested each of these “legs” in various ways. Can character education of the kind reflected in the Narnian Virtues project still flourish in our less-than-ideal realities?

The pilot program implemented the Narnian Virtues curriculum in schools both secular and Christian, with student bodies drawn from a diversity of socio-economic backgrounds. Although it was not clear to me in reading the literature if and how the results differed based on the school’s religious and socio-economic demographics, the broader story of one school in particular highlights the potential of character education in difficult circumstances.

Trinity (Doncaster) is part of Emmanuel Schools Foundation, a Multi-Academy Trust of which Pike is now CEO. Pike first encountered the school when, in his role as Associate Professor of Education at Leeds, he wrote a case study after it was declared the “Most Improved Academy in England” by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. The challenges of the school’s post-industrial setting were — and remain — immense. The end of coal mining in the region led to mass unemployment, and at the “predecessor school” to Trinity, only 28% of students were passing five or more subjects on standardized exams (the General Certificate of Secondary Education [GCSE] exams, generally given after two years of secondary schooling). Upon that state school’s failure, a “Christian ethos” school was established in its stead — an impossibility in America, of course, given the reigning interpretation of the First Amendment. Scores improved steadily and remarkably. Within five years, the number of 16-year-olds passing at least five subjects had jumped to an astonishing 85%. Pike attributes this transformation to character education and core values — and to the school’s Christian ethos.

Pike and Lickona each rejected my skepticism that America’s secular schools — public or private — could teach Narnian Virtues well. Neither accepted my characterization of the project as “countercultural.” Pike agreed that it is “in tension with relativism” but described near-universal support for character education among “school leaders and teachers and parents.” Lickona, who directs the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) at SUNY Cortland, told me that the vast majority of American public schools now consider character education a central part of their mission.

“Edmund… thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the Queen should be so inquisitive.” -The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Regardless of whether America’s public school systems are equipped to implement the project, undoubtedly other educational contexts — whether classical, Christian, or home-based — are ready and able to do so.

In my Christianity Today piece, I described how a colleague of mine at Covenant — one Thomas Fickley, occasional contributor to Earth & Altar and fashioner of the prayer desk in my parish office — used similar methods while teaching Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to ninth graders. Entirely independently of my research on Narnian Virtues, Fickley created an exercise that could be called, “What’s your ‘shoe bench’?” One of Dickens’s characters, Dr. Manette, resorts to his old prison shoe bench when faced with problems greater than he can countenance. Dickens writes that “it relieved his pain… by substituting the perplexity of the fingers for the perplexity of the brain, and by substituting… the ingenuity of the hands for the ingenuity of the mental torture” (210). In one student’s apt description, the shoe bench acts as “the opposite of a crutch” — instead of an aid to health, it distracts from — but worsens — his difficulties.

As with the “Turkish Delight” exercise in the Narnian Virtues pilot program, students prompted by Fickley to consider their own “shoe benches” tended to pinpoint social media. One student told me that Dr. Manette’s compulsion was virtually indistinguishable from the way he and his peers use technology as an escape from reality — the time period and the method differed, but the purpose and outcome are the same. According to another student, “people started getting really vulnerable” as the conversation in class progressed. When I asked her what encouraged such depth, she pointed to the “rawness of Dr. Manette’s case” and “Dickens’s really intense depiction… People were willing to stay in that zone.”

The students I taught generally recognized the destructive tendencies of social-media addiction — though perhaps not the depth of the problem — but they often expressed apathy or fatalism, a sense of being trapped in a broader culture and a peer community which they felt they could not control. The response among Fickley’s students was, by contrast, surprisingly heartening: “Students I interviewed described concrete steps they took to live in greater freedom from social media—deleting accounts, giving up smartphones, and challenging others to do the same.”

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Shortly after talking to these students back in February, I wrote:

“It is too soon to know the long-term impacts of these ‘shoe bench’ conversations. This little band of students inhabits a culture in which the smartest minds and most powerful corporations spend enormous amounts of money to engineer their addictions. As one student pointed out, it is easy to find other distractions or unhealthy habits to replace the old ones — new, better habits must be chosen and pursued. Nevertheless, the example reflects the robust potential of literature as a means of building character.”

This was just weeks before our school was forced to shift to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our students,like those all over the country, were suddenly compelled to spend even longer hours in front of screens in order to pursue their education. Their peer relations — already far more “virtual” than in past generations — became even more disembodied.

As students return to school, it may be more important than ever for their schools to consider all the ways they might challenge students to reconsider and reshape their bad habits — and inspire and equip them to cultivate virtue instead. Putting good stories into the hands of good teachers — and equipping them with resources like the Narnian Virtues program — may be among the most promising avenues in pursuing that end.

Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.


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