Educating the imagination

May 27, 2004, vol. 30, no. 3
By Julie Ovenell-Carter



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This year's winner of the dean of graduate studies convocation medal in education worries that the way literature is often taught starves the "moral imagination" of modern young people, and contributes to a pervasive "ethical malaise."

Monika Hilder has taught high school and post-secondary level English for the last two decades. "I was becoming increasingly haunted by my students' resistance to studying the dark and depressive literature that is so much a part of the modern curriculum," says the Surrey mother of three. "I think there is a strong connection between the nature of a young person's literary diet and feelings of despair, and I thought there would be some value in exploring how — and what kind of — literature nurtures courage, hope and ethical responsibility."

After a 17-year absence from graduate school, Hilder returned to SFU in 2000 to begin a doctoral program. Her resulting thesis, Educating the moral imagination: The fantasy literature of George Macdonald, C.S. Lewis, and Madeleine L'Engle, was hailed by advisor and SFU education professor Kieran Egan for its theoretical sophistication and practical applications. The entire final chapter includes classroom-ready exercises to help English teachers develop the "moral fortitude" of their students through the study of literature.

Hilder argues teachers "too often ignore literature's most serious purpose: to teach virtue…. We are failing to equip children and young adults with what they need most: literary nourishment that facilitates the development of spiritual well-being." Her thesis, she says, addresses a gap in the current curriculum: "the need to educate the imagination with healing stories of courage and hope."

She returned to her favorite childhood authors to explore the "rational reason behind the intuitive response of delight and joy" that she felt on first reading of fantasies such as A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She "found an amazing pattern" in many of the stories: heroes that incorporated "the traditionally ‘feminine' traits of imagination, interdependence and humility."

Hilder believes high-calibre fantasy literature such as the Harry Potter series serves young readers "by allowing them to safely explore the dark places within themselves, and by giving them some tools to overcome evil." She believes students are keen to study literature that "celebrates the victory of the human spirit over materialism," and points to the overwhelming success of recent The Lord of the Rings movies as evidence that there is "a hunger for hope in the world."

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