How to teach young human animals to bear God’s image has always been a difficult and controversial endeavor. Jean Jacques Rousseau thought that you merely need to release children back into the How to teach young human animals to bear God’s image has always been a difficult and controversial endeavor. Jean Jacques Rousseau thought that you merely need to release children back into the wilds of nature and they would then naturally become better human beings. Not surprisingly, Rousseau never raised the children he fathered. Instead, he left them in a crowded orphanage and not in nature. Of course, even romantic Christians thought some isolation might bring one back to one’s humanity, such as Daniel DeFoe’s overtly Christian “redemption by nature” novel, Robinson Crusoe. Perhaps the story of the Lord of the Flies, written by someone who actually served as a teacher, is more accurate in this regard. Leave children to nature by themselves and they may transform into animals who treat others as animals. Children need wise guides to lead them.
That’s why we should listen to an idiot for help with understanding Christian moral education. The particular idiot I have in mind is Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, the title character from Fyodor Doestoevysky’s The Idiot. In one particular part of the book, Myshkin relates a story to a group of high society party goers about Marie, the daughter of an invalid who had been seduced by a French traveler and then abandoned. Consequently, “She came home dirty, draggled, and shoeless; she had walked for a whole week without shoes; she had slept in the fields, and caught a terrible cold; her feet were swollen and sore, and her hands torn and scratched all over.” When she came home, notice the language used to describe the adults’ treatment of her, “Everyone standing around looked at her as if she was a reptile; the old men condemned and scolded her, the young people laughed, the women shouted abuse at her and glared at her as if she was some kind of loathsome spider.” A reptile and a spider. Given the animal-like treatment from the adults, it is not surprise that soon the village’s forty schoolchildren began teasing her and throwing dirt at her.
The Idiot, Prince Myschkin, then begins his lessons in Christian education. He shared how although he had little money, he sold a diamond in his possession to give Marie money. When he gave her the money, he attempted to kiss her hand, but she pulled it away. The children, seeing all this, act as children do. They made fun of the prince and Marie and threw mud at both of them. They continued their torments, “The children would not let her pass now in the streets, but annoyed her and threw dirt at her more than before. They used to run after her–she racing away with her poor feeble lungs panting and gasping, and they pelting her and shouting abuse at her.” Myschkin related, “”Once I had to interfere by force; and after that I took to speaking to them every day and whenever I could. Occasionally they stopped and listened; but they teased Marie all the same.”
Myschkin then became the children’s moral educator. He began, as a good moral educator should, by telling the children Marie’s emotionally-charged story in order to shape their affections: “I told them how unhappy Marie was, and after a while they stopped their abuse of her, and let her go by silently. Little by little we got into the way of conversing together, the children and I. I concealed nothing from them, I told them all. They listened very attentively and soon began to be sorry for Marie.”
Through story, Myschkin influenced and shaped the children’s affections and empathy. Only then, did the manners the children had already learned from other adults get applied in a new situation, “At last some of them took to saying ‘Good-morning’ to her, kindly, when they met her. It is the custom there to salute anyone you meet with ‘Good-morning’ whether acquainted or not. I can imagine how astonished Marie was at these first greetings from the children.” Myschkin had helped the animal become human in the eyes of the children.
As a result, the children became more human as well. They started showing hospitality to the stranger, “Once two little girls got hold of some food and took it to her, and came back and told me. They said she had burst into tears, and that they loved her very much now.” Suddenly, the extreme gratitude for this simple act of kindness, changed the girls’ hearts. The girls then led the other children, “Very soon after that they all became fond of Marie, and at the same time they began to develop the greatest affection for myself. They often came to me and begged me to tell them stories. I think I must have told stories well, for they did so love to hear them….”
The children even persisted in their humane treatment in the face of the adults’ inhumanity, “Everyone discovered now that the little ones had taken to being fond of Marie, and their parents were terribly alarmed; but Marie was so happy. The children were forbidden to meet her…” The inhumanity of parents wanting to protect their children from imagined evils always proves a powerful motivation for deformation.
The children, however, knew what was good as the Idiot tells us, “They used to run out of the village to the herd and take her food and things; and sometimes just ran off there and kissed her, and said, ‘Je vous aime, Marie!’ and then trotted back again. They imagined that I was in love with Marie, and this was the only point on which I did not undeceive them, for they got such enjoyment out of it. And what delicacy and tenderness they showed!” The children had moved from showing good manners to showing kindness and tenderness.
It would not stop there, “When we left her, Marie used to relapse at once into her old condition, and sit with closed eyes and motionless limbs. One day she could not go out at all, and remained at home all alone in the empty hut; but the children very soon became aware of the fact, and nearly all of them visited her that day as she lay alone and helpless in her miserable bed.” The children moved from simple acts of kindness to following Christ’s command to visit the sick. Their moral heroism finally aroused the adults to some humanity:
For two days the children looked after her, and then, when the village people got to know that Marie was really dying, some of the old women came and took it in turns to sit by her and look after her a bit. I think they began to be a little sorry for her in the village at last; at all events they did not interfere with the children any more, on her account. Marie lay in a state of uncomfortable delirium the whole while; she coughed dreadfully. The old women would not let the children stay in the room; but they all collected outside the window each morning, if only for a moment, and shouted ‘Bon jour, notre bonne Marie!’ and Marie no sooner caught sight of, or heard them, and she became quite animated at once, and, in spite of the old women, would try to sit up and nod her head and smile at them, and thank them. The little ones used to bring her nice things and sweets to eat, but she could hardly touch anything. Thanks to them, I assure you, the girl died almost perfectly happy.
The girl, the children, and the adults also slowly become much more human. They had experienced a particular kind of moral education. They had moved from animal-like vice to showing the virtues of God, as image bearers of God. I would venture that the author of Forest Gump gained some inspiration from this Idiot. So, should we.
Perry L. Glanzer is Professor of Educational Foundations at Baylor University and the Editor-in-Chief of Christian Scholar’s Review. He is also the editor the Christ-Animated Learning Blog on the Christian Scholar’s Review web site.