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Excerpt from:  “Character Formation in the Literary Classroom,” CEA Critic LIII.2 (Winter, 1990):  5-21.


As story penetrates and helps us order the randomness of experience, and as we penetrate stories, we gradually gain the breadth of knowledge and vision necessary to plot our position in the ocean of human possibilities. What C. S. Lewis says of written stories holds true for story in general:


“. . . those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He [sic] may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is content to be only himself, and therefore less than a self, is in prison. . . . Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.”


One of the main goals of liberal education, perhaps the main goal, is to help students replace such wounding forms of individuality as smugness, provincialism, intolerance, closemindedness, and selfishness with possibilities for living that carry them beyond individuality without forcing them to cease being individuals. Most teachers in liberal education want to help their students achieve a more generous, more subtle, more sensitive, and more responsible sense of stewardship for the larger world beyond themselves and for the other people in it. In other words, most teachers want to help students learn, as Robert Bellah puts it, "how to preserve or create a morally coherent life," especially within a tradition of "individualism [that] may have grown cancerous."


With regard to character, most of us would probably agree that liberally educated students should be committed to analyzing issues from moral not just instrumentalist perspectives. They should be committed to solving problems by reason, not force; they should respect differences of belief and opinion without falling into the quicksand of relativism; they should be able to construct humane criticism of the practices and values of their professions; they should not only value personal integrity but also possess the moral courage to maintain their integrity against pressure from their peers and the seductions of a materialistic society; and, finally, they should accept some degree of responsibility for the world around them and the condition in which it is passed on to future generations.


But to agree about these objectives is to agree that the aims of liberal education are ethical. That is, they are directed beyond interior cultivation and self-interest to the ability to make an interconnected set of social, political, and moral judgments about the larger world based on moral principle and reason. The question is this: How may literary study in the classroom help both teachers and students realize the aims of liberal education? In what follows, I suggest ten ways that literary study creates for students the chance to shape and reshape their own character, ways that are consistent with the fundamental concerns of liberal education for individual autonomy and independent thinking.