Opinion: The moral's in the story, not the stern lecture

We should remember that 'Thou shalt not' might reach the head, but it takes 'Once upon a time' to reach the heart

Philip Pullman
Wednesday 17 July 1996 23:02 BST

We've all heard a great deal recently about the campaign to make children more moral. Apparently, teachers have failed to do so, and politicians and bishops are keen to tell them how to do it properly.

The way to do it, we're informed, is to tell children frequently "Thou shalt not". And to drive the message home, there must be an act of worship every day in schools - those who aren't interested must be preached to by those who don't believe, on behalf of those who want votes.

It's a waste of time. And worse, it's an insult to the intelligence - the moral intelligence, if you like - of thousands and thousands of young people.

True moral education takes place whenever anyone, of whatever age, encounters a story with an open mind. Why else is the Bible full of stories? Why did Aesop tell fables instead of saying "Thou shalt not"? Were the great teachers fools? They taught with the help of stories because stories work.

It's worth taking a few minutes to consider how they work, though, because otherwise we might fall into the danger of assuming a mechanical connection. Hear this, behave like that. Read an approved book, do a comprehension test to show you've understood it, stop bullying. It doesn't work like that.

Stories work secretly, and almost never in ways we can predict. And certainly never for the whole class at once. They work in silence. They work when they're given time, and when they're not harried to death by teachers desperate to get the kids past this test or that. They work when they're left alone. They work when they're not explained, when teachers have the confidence to accept a degree of mystery without flattening out the shadows in a bright neon blaze of explanation. They work when a reader encounters a character whose fate rings true, and when a thrill ofrecognition makes the skin prickle or the heart pound. They work in ways we can't even explain to ourselves.

So recognition is the thing. But that's only part of the reason for the power that stories have. Another important factor is art. Good stories work better than bad ones because they're more interesting, they're put together in clever and original ways, they're richer. There are more kinds of pleasure in them, complicated as well as simple. They're built to last longer.

And they work to teach moral lessons in all kinds of ways. They show that actions have consequences. We read Janni Howker's The Nature of the Beast, for example, and we learn that if you treat people badly, they'll do bad things. Stories show us that you can undermine even heroism's confidence in itself by casting doubt on its motives: read Jill Paton Walsh's Grace. And stories show that feelings aren't cast in bronze; they can modulate. We read Anne Fine's Goggle-Eyes, and we learn that in time, and with care, suspicion can turn into tolerance, and tolerance can turn into affection. What's that, if not a moral lesson?

Stories do many other things too. They astonish, they delight, they horrify, they pass the time, they help us to endure. But one thing they do supremely well is teach. However, they can only do it if they are there.

So my advice to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Secretary of State for Education would be this. Put aside the lists of moral rights and wrongs. Don't waste your time and our patience with your instructions and injunctions. You could achieve the ends you want (and we all want a moral society) much more effectively by making sure that every school in the country has enough books for all its pupils. Support the schools library service. In some places, resurrect the schools library service. And don't nag teachers into testing everything. We need books, time, and silence.

And we'd all do well to remember that "Thou shalt not" might reach the head, but it takes "Once upon a time" to reach the heart.

Yesterday Philip Pullman won the Carnegie Medal for his book for children, 'Northern Lights'. The medal is awarded by the Library Association and was first won by Arthur Ransome in 1936.

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