Dr Connie K. Chung, EdD, founder and Executive Director of Living Well ckc and former Associate Director for the Global Education Innovation Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about the importance of ethical imagination and offers her thoughts on what benefits exercising it might have in a rapidly changing world. Thank you to Connie for writing this inspiring contribution, written exclusively for Imagination Matters.
I was nine years old when I first encountered Bishop Myriel in a children’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables. In the story, Jean Valjean had been released from prison after serving an inordinately long sentence for stealing bread to feed his sister’s hungry children. A yellow card marking him as a convicted criminal was enough to lead to his being denied shelter and human company in most places.
Yet the Bishop invites Valjean into his home and feeds him. When the police catch Valjean in the night, running away with a sack full of the Bishop’s silver, the humble Bishop lies to the police officers. He tells them that he had given the silver to Valjean. He says that in fact, Valjean had forgotten to take the silver candlesticks he had also gifted him.
In response, Valjean reflects: “One word from [the Bishop] and I’d be back/ Beneath the lash, upon the rack/ Instead he offers me my freedom/ I feel my shame inside me like a knife/ …What spirit comes to move my life?/ Is there another way to go?/…Another story must begin.” Valjean, overwhelmed by the Bishop’s act of grace, begins a new life. He is set free, both from another long, harsh prison sentence and from the bitterness that had consumed him about his situation. At the end of the novel, Jean Valjean dies as a well-respected and beloved citizen, in the glow cast by the candles from the Bishop’s silver candlesticks.
The Bishop’s scene was powerful enough to communicate, even to a nine year old girl, the complexity of what it means to do the “right” thing in a turbulent, rapidly changing world – in this case, just after the French Revolution. The Bishop breaks the traditional rules of right and wrong by lying to officers of the law and by aiding and abetting a common criminal. Though he had no way of knowing whether Valjean would make any good out of second chance given to him, the Bishop sees the possibility of a positive, hopeful future for him. He then acts accordingly, placing his trust in Valjean; instead of selling another’s soul for silver, he invests his own silver to breathe life into another, in a reversal of the Judas and Jesus story.
“Is there another way to go?”
Perhaps the Bishop knew that Valjean’s original “criminal” act of stealing bread was no more than an act of desperation and compassion, committed out of a desire to feed children during a time of widespread economic scarcity and inequality in France. Perhaps he did not know any of this, but instead, acted purely out of the knowledge that whatever punishment that would be meted out to Valjean would be cruel and disproportionate to the crime that he committed. Perhaps he knew that acting with integrity in this case, required that he pay attention to not only to the demands of justice, but also to the generative forces of mercy, grace, and a holistic understanding of the social, political, and economic situation in which Jean Valjean and the larger French society found themselves; perhaps he knew that it required looking not only to the past and the present, but also looking to invest – literally –into a more hopeful future for another. The Bishop, in other words, exercises his ethical imagination, and asks, “Is there another way to go?”
In an age where rapid change is the norm, and where each of us hold a great deal of power in what we say and do, our personal values form an anchor that grounds us; they inform and guide our choices in words and actions that inevitably impact others.
These are the kinds of discussions that I had modeled for me as a student in literature classes as a high school and college student, including a well-known and popular course offered by Professor Robert Coles, the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, called Gen Ed 105: The Literature of Social Reflection. His book, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, was a seminal one for me as I became a teacher, navigating with my teenage students through the moral worlds of literary classics like Elie Wiesel’s Night, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, among others. I felt then and still do now, that the questions of how to live one’s life well and how our choices reflect our values, are important ones to consider in life, and especially in times of complexity and ambiguity.
In an age where rapid change is the norm, and where each of us hold a great deal of power in what we say and do, our personal values form an anchor that grounds us; they inform and guide our choices in words and actions that inevitably impact others. Thus, it is critical to have time and space to reflect, to discuss with others, to practice putting ourselves into the shoes of others, and to cast our vision more widely. In other words, we need opportunities to exercise both our empathy and our ethical imagination, and to consider situations from multiple angles, levels, and perspectives.
Is there another way to go with empathy and integrity?
What might the exercise of ethical imagination offer in an age of rapid change? I offer a few possibilities below:
1. Ethical imagination asks us to take into account broader contexts when assessing other people and situations. For example, when we read about the Bishop and Jean Valjean’s decisions as told by Hugo, it is impossible not to take into consideration the social, political, and economic contexts that shape them.
2. Ethical imagination helps us to be humane and relational in our decisions. For example, the Bishop models for us what it might look like to treat with dignity and humanity, someone who is marginalized and faces adversity.
3. Ethical imagination helps us to be past, present, future, and possibilities oriented. For example, we are able to follow along with Hugo’s story, about the consequences of a simple decision made by the Bishop to save Jean Valjean – and to imagine other possibilities.
4. Ethical imagination encourages us to be courageous and hold ambiguity and complexity in tension. Of course, this vignette is based on a fictional work, and the Bishop’s decision has resonance all the more because in Hugo’s narrative, Jean Valjean then makes a series of decisions to live a good and generous life. The story could well have turned out differently had Valjean not been so soft-hearted in response to the Bishop’s generosity. Discussions with young people about stories like these might do well to include critical perspectives about the narrative decisions made by the writers.
In other words, exercising our ethical imagination in an age of rapid change helps us to ask and answer the question, “Is there another way to go?” with empathy and integrity.
Dr. Connie K. Chung is former high school literature teacher and an OECD expert to the Education 2030 Project, researching the kinds of values and attitudes that are the most relevant to foster for individual and social well-being.
 in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical adaptation