Published in The Journal of Moral Education, this research article defends an approach to biographical narratives inspired by Augustine. It addresses four concerns educators may have about the use of role-models and their biographies in moral formation.
This article examines the use of biographical narratives in contemporary moral education, with particular reference to the exemplarist moral theory (EMT) of Linda Zagzebski. It distinguishes between classical and modern versions of exemplarist moral education, highlighting the seminal contribution of Augustine’s Confessions. Itself an autobiography, Confessions presents a new way to read a life, highlighting a transition from the conformist pattern of replication inherent in classical education to a central concern with self-identity and the inner life. We argue the educational benefits of a modern Augustinian approach, presenting and responding to four important concerns: (1) the selectivity of authors and educators in choosing which exemplars and life events to present; (2) the rhetorical power of narratives, which can be used as a means of indoctrination; (3) the need for students to be appropriately receptive in order for exemplar narratives to increase moral motivation; (4) the importance of relevance and realism in the exemplar narratives that are used. Along the way, we highlight a significant tension in EMT, relating to the instability of its grounding on the identification of human exemplars and the possibility of selecting individuals who may later come to light as far from exemplary persons.