The use of biographical narratives in exemplarist moral education

Edward Brooks*, Oliver Coates, Liz Gulliford

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
6 Downloads (Pure)


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.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Moral Education
Early online date23 Aug 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 23 Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This publication was made possible through the support of a network grant from the John Templeton Foundation based at Wake Forest University (ID 61514) and awarded to the University of Northampton (2019–2022). We would like to thank Eranda Jayawickreme and Michael Lamb at Wake Forest University for their leadership of a network project on Exemplar Interventions to Develop Character, of which this work is part. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet at Wake Forest in November 2019 and for constructive conversation on early ideas for this paper. We are also grateful to the Research Fellows of the Oxford Character Project, who provided helpful feedback: Edward David, Matthew Johnson, Rebecca Park, Roger Revell, and Lani Watson.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Journal of Moral Education Ltd.


  • Augustine
  • biography
  • Exemplarism
  • Linda Zagzebski
  • moral exemplars
  • narrative

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Religious studies


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