A Call To Character: Telling Tales
When you're an adult, life holds all sorts of stories: the painfully detailed ones your elderly neighbor tells about his gall-bladder operation; the embarrassing ones your best friend tells about you after a couple of beers; the contradictory ones your parents tell about their first date; the long ones you'd rather not tell anybody. When you're a kid, a story's either a preachy yawn or the binding of a spell. Former education secretary William Bennett has assembled three of the former, according to Colin Greer, whose credentials include directorship of the New World Foundation, 15 years of teaching, more than 10 education books and fatherhood of three children, ages 5 to 27. Exasperated, he and Herbert Kohl have edited A Call to Character, the progressive response to conservative storytelling. "It seemed to me that values were a crucial question in the public mind these days, with so many public officials running short of them, and the only way to (teach) them was Bennett's books, which seemed to me to be the wrong end of the stick," Greer says good-humoredly. "His selections are didactic, antiquated and just plain dull. They needed to be challenged." A Call to Character divides its stories, poems, plays, proverbs and fables into four sections, rippling outward from the self to family, friends, the rest of humanity and nature and, finally, love. In each section, there are values: empathy, generosity, playfulness, compassion, integrity, self-discipline, fairness, courage. It's enough to please even Bennett. Until, of course, he saw how they were illustrated: Marge Piercy's poem "Unlearning to Not Speak" shows how girls are told they are "babymachine, mirror image, toy,/earth mother and penis-poor,/a dish of synthetic strawberry ice cream/rapidly melting" and urges them to "learn again to speak/starting with I/starting with We." Self-discipline filters through Christy Brown's My Left Foot and Langston Hughes' mother reminding her son, "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair." "Our book should be distinguished from William Bennett's books for both child-development and political reasons," comments Greer. "Bennett is thinking about values -- he calls them virtues -- as ideals that can be somehow imbibed by a person through will power and then become part of them for life. I think about values as built through relationships and serving as guidelines for the inevitable moral problems that come with life. There are no simple serious problems." The book is subtitled A Family Treasury, and it's designed so parents and children can read it together. That way, "adult and child can share the imagination," Greer explains, "and it's through imagination that social values develop. Empathy and generosity and compassion all have to do with imagining yourself in someone else's position." Before cutting funding for the arts, for example, you might imagine yourself in Dylan Thomas' position, thinking about "my craft or sullen art/Exercised in the still night/.../for the lovers, their arms/Round the griefs of the ages,/Who pay no praise or wages." What role does imagination play in Bennett's collections? "There isn't any," Greer snaps. Then he relents: "It's implicit because you are dealing with stories, but it's not an active variable. Nor is suffering." He finds that absence inexcusable: "People have pain in their lives for all sorts of reasons, and the moral imagination is the application of imagination to concern for suffering. But Bennett doesn't deal with that framework at all." Greer also has strong ideas about discipline's role in the development of morality. "The notion of time-out is an interesting example of one of the problems in popular child development," he comments. "If you send a child away, it's experienced as punitive, it can't not be. But if you go away with the child and say, Let's talk about it,' then you go through a difficult time together. And that's how people learn to get through difficult times and deal with complexity in the world. One's impulses are not always compatible with the moment. And the idea of getting through difficult places is the heart of the moral life." That idea comes across in selections ranging from The Velveteen Rabbit to the Emma Lazarus poem that welcomed "your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Bennett wouldn't like that last bit, since immigrants cost money. Nor would he like the economic politics of Willy Loman's words in Death of a Salesman: "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away -- a man is not a piece of fruit!" And neither is a child. Corporal punishment is "absolutely never, never appropriate," Greer believes. "If you don't hit other adults, you don't hit children." Children who are hit either grow up hitting or grow up hostile, he adds. "Clearly, when kids are out of hand, you have to impose authority. But authority is only respected if it has integrity." If you don't practice what you preach, in other words, you may get a child's obedience, but you won't instill a moral value. Empathy is instilled when you use it: "Let your child know that you know what you're asking of them is not the easiest thing for them to do right now, but you want their cooperation," Greer suggests. At school, the same principles should hold. "I'd like teachers to know that the more love they can show, the better the child will be," Greer says, his voice softening. "I'd like each teacher to let go of the worst experiences they had, because otherwise, when confronted with a problem, they'll revert to those images and fears."