“When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.
Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:
so bitter–death is hardly more severe!
About a month ago, while I was in the midst of teaching Dante’s Inferno to my students, I wrote about the wilderness experience in the epic. I then asserted my belief that the vision of public education is an epic one and offered a few lessons we can learn from epic heroes when faced with our own wilderness experiences. Here is a quick recap:
1. In epics, the wilderness experience is one of education and formation.
2. The proper response to the wilderness is submission to the calling the epic hero has received.
3. Before the proper response can occur, the epic hero requires a guide.
Now, not to be a downer, but I believe that when offering advice as to a healthy response, underneath the conversation lie some darker alternatives.
In addition to holding up the heroic response to wilderness, epic stories also present alternative responses, responses that emphasize, by contrast, the vital nature of the proper response to wilderness. Without proper submission to a calling, the epic hero could become paranoid and self-destructive, or what is far worse, embrace the savagery of the wilderness.
1. One alternative response to the submission of the epic hero is that of fear and hopelessness.
This is the “tearfulness” Virgil remarks on to the pilgrim at the beginning of the Inferno. Dante the pilgrim is full of “fear,” “terror,” and “sorrow” in this wood, but he agrees to submit to the formation he must undergo.
By contrast, the Trojan women in The Aeneid give in to hopelessness. Giving up faith that they will see a renewed Troy, they burn their own ships to strand themselves on an island partway on their journey. The men of Odysseus, out of desperation and hunger, ignore their leader’s warning and kill the cattle of Helios. In the Exodus, The Hebrews beg to return to Egypt.
In each instance of these improper responses to the testing of wilderness, the hopelessness breeds paranoia and self-destruction. The longing for relief and fear of the unknown invites a sabotage of the epic project.
How do we educators become hopeless? There are obvious ways of course: we might quit and give up the career all together in spite of feeling called to and gifted for the profession. But there are also less obvious ways that educators become entrapped in these emotions. We become weary in the battle for what is right for students, and so we just give in to whatever prepackaged program or standardized testing workbook is passed our way. It can be tough to be in a classroom or a school or a district or a state or a nation where every day we are told what is wrong with us. It’s easy to think that no matter what we do we will still be unappreciated, or worse, abused. And so, like so many other victims of abuse, we start to believe these things about ourselves and about our schools. Believing that no matter what we try our situations won’t change, sometimes we stop trying. And when we stop trying, we perpetuate the falsehoods being told about schools, or worse, we realize them.
2. However pitiful these responses may be, there seems to me to be even one further, more insidious response to wilderness—that of embracing the savagery, choosing to dwell in the wilderness, to make it home and refuse the progression of education.
Essentially, these characters halt the epic journey because they refuse to submit. They instead clothe themselves with the evil they encounter. The ultimate example of this is John Milton’s Satan, who surveys his prison and claims: “And thou / profoundest Hell, / Receive thy new possessor. . .” (1.251-252). He says that he “can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven” (1.254-255). He won’t submit to worshiping God, so he will instead, in pride, embrace his wilderness. In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien tells of Mary Anne Bell, a young girl who comes from America in her pink sweater and white culottes. She becomes so enamored with the fighting in Vietnam that she joins the Green Beret and disappears into the jungle, wearing her necklace of human tongues.
So what does this look like for educators? I don’t want to appear accusatory, but I do believe there are some clear behaviors. And I want to emphasize that in all my years of teaching, the number of teachers who have reached this point is quite small. This is an extreme position, just as it is in the epic.
Perhaps there is a possibility that we might no longer resent being given packaged materials to prepare students for testing and not much else. Perhaps after using these materials for long enough, we might grow accustomed to the ease of having materials and lessons prepared. We might stop believing that students deserve something better. We might sacrifice our ingenuity and creativity and embrace instead the culture of high-stakes standardization.
This is the darkness that lies beneath the choice Virgil presents to Dante. The epic presents these other characters as shadows, as possibilities of who the epic hero could become. The good news is that, in the end, the epic project is designed and executed by the gods; as such, in spite of these responses, heroes will continue to receive their callings. Someone will fulfill the vision; the epic journey will come to its appointed outcome. Similarly, I believe that dedicated, gifted, and called educators will continue to pursue our epic vision. We each must decide if we will join this group of heroes.
Dante, Alighieri. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Knopf, 1995. Print.
Milton, John, and Gordon Teskey. Paradise Lost: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print.