For almost fifteen years, I’ve taught Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey to students through such epic tales as The Odyssey, The Hobbit, The Alchemist, and even Lonesome Dove. Campbell, perhaps the leading expert on all things related to culture and myth, says that, throughout time and across cultures, in all the stories told around campfires, painted in caves, sung by troubadours, imagined by warrior thanes, and experienced by Hobbits chasing dwarves to face dragons, there exists but one overarching narrative: that of the Hero’s Journey. It is the great story, the mono-myth that is told over and over again, from the Legend of the Corn King to Star Wars.
It is the story of the protagonist leaving the safety and comfort of the known to journey to rugged lands, where he or she will invariably encounter dragons, trolls, wizards, the Borg, Imperial Storm Troopers, wicked step-mothers, and maybe even a Death Eater or two.
Along the way, help-meets arrive, companions for the journey, fellow travelers, like Donkey to Shrek, the likes of which we would never meet but for the journey.
And, greatest of all, there comes for the protagonist a Mentor, one who has been through the Hero’s Journey and survived. One whose role now is to offer guidance, training, wisdom, and strength for the road. It is Gandalf, Yoda, Mr. Miagi, Chiron, Morpheus, Galadriel, even Mentor himself. These are the Elders, the Bearded Men (to quote John Sowers), the Wise Ones who speak with the flaming tongues of the gods themselves. These Mentors present to the protagonist a vision of her best self. They call the hero towards his highest aspirations.
At some point in the journey, most often at the darkest, loneliest, most dangerous part of the journey, the protagonist must enter the Abyss, the place where one must face one’s Shadow–that Thing that is the greatest internal threat to the hero. It is Bilbo facing Gollum in the dark cave of the Misty Mountains, Luke facing off against the illusory Darth Vader in the pit on Dagobah, Odysseus staring down the dead in Hades, Jesus trumping Satan in the wilderness. The Abyss is do-or-die for the hero. Here, she must face herself first. Long before Luke actually faces Darth Vader, he faces himself in the cave, and there you have that great moment (my favorite movie moment from my childhood!) when Luke slices off Vader’s head and the mask splits open to reveal that the face inside is not that of Anakin Skywalker, but of Luke himself!
if and when the protagonist successfully emerges from the Abyss, he is no longer the same person. Something has changed. A new sense of courage, of ability, of insight has occurred. You see this when Bilbo emerges from Gollum’s cave with the One Ring to Rule Them All. He is no longer being carried by the dwarves, a burden to their journey. Now, he carries them. Long before Bilbo faces the external threat of the dragon Smaug, he must first face himself in the Abyss. Whatever comes after that, the hero is now ready.
Once the hero has successfully completed the quest for which she left the known, once the dragon has been vanquished, the damsel rescued, the treasure found, the hero returns back to the known, goes back home, different, in that strangely mythical, magical way that leaves parents and neighbors scratching their heads. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” they ask. Something has changed. A noticeable difference has occurred. New strength, new vision, new power emanates from the hero. And nothing will ever be the same again.
So, what does this have to do with education?
I just finished reading John Sowers’ new book, The Heroic Path, in which he discusses the lack (for boys especially) of the great, ancient rituals that helped initiate boys into manhood (or students into the adult world). In the language of school excellence, the purpose of schooling is to help students prepare for “college and career,” a narrative that, as I have written about before on this blog, may not succeed even when it “succeeds,” often leaving students feeling disillusioned, apathetic, and even demoralized. The problem is not with them, it is with the lack of a compelling story, the lack of a meaningful quest. Even the students who make it feel let down, as this valedictorian address makes clear:
What if, as John Sowers, argues, what is missing is the ancient language of the heroic journey? What if education, rather than training desk jockeys for corporate America, helped usher students down the heroic path?
As I have said before, defining “success” in market terms does little to overcome the deep moral, relational, emotional, spiritual, and even financial crises facing us today. How many more “successful” icons do we need in our culture who end up in divorce, debt, prison, addicted, or dead to tell us we are missing something? (Here is a great article by Michael Hyatt on the tragic story of football great, Steve Mcnair, as but one example of this: “One Stupid Decision Away”).
What if, to counter this malaise, education modeled itself after the great and timeless mono-myth? What if education helped students cross the threshold from adolescence into adulthood, surrounded by Mentors, help-mates, and guides? How great would it be if every student had a Gandalf beside them stepping in at just the right time with a whisper or a roar, to offer a wink behind the curling wisp of pipe smoke? What if there actually existed Last Homely Houses, refuges where students felt safe enough to question the journey? What if our pedagogy sounded more like the voice of Yoda than McGraw-Hill? What if our graduation ceremonies were more initiation rites of blessing and purpose than droll, soporific affairs? What if education helped students decide to live courageously, even sacrificially, with the time that is given to them?
What if education bestowed not a diploma but an identity upon its recipients?
Perhaps then, instead of brokenness we might foster blessing. Instead of despair, dancing. Instead of aimless wandering, purpose. We might just find that, by re-imagining education through the ancient lens of heroic quest, we help students cross the threshold into the unknown, ready to become the slayers of dragons our culture so desperately needs.
“It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” J.R.R. Tolkien