One of the main purposes of education aims at improving the students’ value systems, in other words, teaching character to youth following methodological standards. However, in order to provide the students with character-improving experiences, able to shape their behaviours, mentality and choices, educators need teaching material which articulates ethical values and dilemmas and promotes commonsensical attitudes like decency, discipline, integrity, self-esteem, respect etc.
Obviously, one of the answers to our search is literature which can and should be used in any educational context and adapted to almost any educational purpose. Being more than a body of knowledge, it has the power to bring the challenges of the outside world into the classroom, foster emotional and intellectual engagement, moral illumination and personal growth. Thus, with minimal effort, teachers can create the right circumstances in which their students can become critical thinkers, able to discern between the relativity of moral conventions, acknowledge the permanence of moral values, identify different facets of morality which will enable them to recognize and blame negative behaviour and attitudes, praise and proliferate positive aspects and make informed decisions in life.
While it is true that teachers cannot always control or evaluate their students’ behaviour and attitudes, it is also true that learners can be taught to evaluate and control themselves if provided with the right alternatives and encouraged to respond in a positive, responsible way to similar circumstances. Nonetheless, what is really imperative for the students is to be invited and not forced to participate when it comes to the improvement of their own value systems and personal development. To do this, the learners have to be presented with standards and examples in order for them to willingly reconsider their relationships with themselves and with other people.
However, before trying to fix a character flaw or improve character in general, the teacher has to identify their students’ problems or weaknesses as well as the threats to their character development. Surveys and other means of evaluation should be used in order to identify the cognitive, attitudinal and behavioral perceptions related to character building, some of the most common targets being the prosocial values of tolerance, responsibility, kindness, resilience, forgiveness, altruism, respect for self and others, maturity etc. Students can use numbers or code names instead of their real names if they prefer confidentiality and, taking into account the increased objectivity of the process, this may also be useful for the evaluation results, too.
Literature is and should be viewed not only as valuable cultural insight and an agent for language learning, but also as a vehicle for educational development and improvement. I consider that, if teachers take their role seriously and regard schools not only as places for mechanical acquisition and exam preparation, but also as educational environments providing students with the moral values and life skills they need in the real world, then, the use of literature as a character formation resource will become an educational priority.
Character education should have been officially integrated into the Romanian curriculum in order to create a necessary culture of character and prevent, rather than solve, behavioral and attitudinal problems which, according to statistics inside and outside the system, are becoming more and more prevalent. And, since nobody can deny that our contemporary society offers our students very few role models to follow, it is high time we turned to fictional heroes for inspiration.
Education is supposed to bring out the best in people and school has the responsibility to inform its students about controversial issues like prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination, bullying, aggressive behaviours, addictions etc., to provide them with all the necessary information in order to understand and become able to successfully deal with them later, in real life situations. As well as these, the use of English literature during the “Councelling and Orientation” classes to teach character can be a good way for the students to develop their moral reasoning skills which are vital for a meaningful and dignified existence.
Nowadays, more than ever, our system of education should be concerned with morality in terms of attitude and behaviour achievement for its disciples rather than in a theoretical, literal sense. Today’s children need to build a strong character in order to face the modern obstacles of (pre)adolescence they will have to cope with: peer pressure, failure, depression, alcohol and drug abuse problems, social and gender discrimination, prejudices, intolerance, marginalization etc.
Stories which illustrate real-life implications of morality really succeed in helping students to better understand and develop their own moral value systems, their strengths, and also identify the possible causes and consequences of their weaknesses. It goes without saying that, living in a society of reversed and contradictory values, the (pre)adolescent reader nevertheless needs to be continuously guided during his/her moral journey by an authentic, credible moral authority – the teacher.
Practice has shown me that literature has the potential to awaken the moral imagination of a student, regardless of gender, age and even level of English competence. As we all know, the protagonists do not live in isolation and their motivations and aspirations are influenced by the external world. Young readers of both genders can become engaged in a personalized journey of initiation which is the reading of a novel, at the end of which, each of them will hopefully emerge a better character, a better person. Besides, since every reader is influenced to a certain extent by his/her readings, timing becomes an important issue to address by the teacher as sometimes, the students are faced with similar choices too early in life (before reading the book) or they read the book too late (after taking a wrong decision).
To conclude with, teaching morality with the help of literature, trying to make sure that the students will choose to “do the right thing” after leaving the classroom means, above all, to provide them with the right knowledge to face their responsibilities and make moral decisions in life. There are countless lessons worth teaching and learning from literature, especially about the protagonists. Firstly, they contain universal themes and relevant ideas for people living everywhere, not necessarily in a fixed historical or geographical context. Secondly, some of them are very realistic pieces of writing emitting an extraordinary emotional force and, either listened to, read aloud or pencil-in-hand, they escape the fictional world and become real, moving and touching (and often changing) their readers in a permanent way. Last, but not least, it is easy for the students to identify themselves and empathize with the characters as they may discover they have a lot in common. Sometimes, their main “guilt” may be the lack of experience, especially when they never intend to do wrong. Just like the young readers, many literary characters lack some essential life skills, even though most of them do have a number of positive qualities to share, which gives them larger-than-life status, moral credibility and added educational value.