“Caldwell turned and as he turned his ankle received an arrow. The class burst into laughter.”
– John Updike, The Centaur
This opening line of Updike’s novel about a burnt-out school teacher in many ways typifies the essential roots of American public education. Like me, Updike uses Greek mythology as a metaphorical background to a contemporary novel. Aside from this structural correlation to my own work, however, there is little else in common between The Centaur and Lost Apple. Updike shows the problem of American education: people forced to live by the limitations set by others. In my novel I go about combating this not just American, but human condition.
Chiron the centaur is the archetype of the teacher in Western Civilization. He is noble and god-like (a half-god actually), and yet part beast and thus an outsider. Nevertheless he is indispensable to the fostering of heroes and every king in Greece sends him his kid to his school cave on Mount Pelion: Achilles, Peleus, Asclepius, Jason, etc. Ultimately, Chiron is accidently wounded by a mis-shot arrow of Heracles. It is a cursed wound, one that will not heal, and, being immortal, Chiron is doomed to suffer from it for eternity. Out of mercy, Zeus grants Chiron his request for death and places him among the stars as the constellation Sagittarius. And there he remains, eternal, inaccessible and yet always sought after.
So what is the connection? What do Americans want from education? We want all the prestige that comes with smarts. We want to say we studied in the centaur’s cave. But we want it easy. We don’t actually want to do the work of personal transformation that education entails. For us, education is a product to be bought and sold and that social mindset is an unhealing wound in the hooves of our teachers. And children, moreover, keenly perceive that their lives are not valued simply for what they are. They see that they too are a commodity being readied for the future of the adults’ world. Fundamentally, this is why they disrupt classrooms.
So who shot the arrow that caused the wound? It certainly wasn’t the kids. It would be easy to blame the dim-witted politicians and corporate interests who are trying to privatize public schools, but really we must blame ourselves. It was we who strung the bow the moment we decided that education is a means to an end and not the end of all means.
No, I cannot place Chiron among the stars of my readers. I cannot insist that the solution to America’s education problems is to renew our seeking after the same paradigm: education as the ideal to be reached by those who can reach it. I believe in education for all, right now, as we are in our present lives. To make this fundamental shift requires a sharp break with what has always been. It requires Dionysus. Tim Schimmel, the eccentric billionaire and founder of Lost Apple Education Park says, “Dionysus has always been one of my favorite gods….That’s really what it comes down to. It’s funny, you might have expected I would pick Chiron, the wise centaur, teacher of heroes, but instead I chose Dionysus, the twice-born god. Somehow he fits better into the scheme of things around here.”
Dionysus is a newcomer god in Greek myth and history, an outsider who comes in and stirs everyone up for better or worse. When this god and his train of revelers come dancing and singing into town, one had better be ready and willing to join in. The consequences for refusing the god are dire as most poignantly portrayed in The Bacchae of Euripides. Another character from Lost Apple, Blaine Starck, explains the Dionysus/Bacchus connection in the latter chapters of the novel, saying in part, “Bacchus, the god of wine and wine-related orgies, he’s celebrated for bringing viniculture to man, but he in fact introduced all manner of cultivatable fruits, including the apple—quite interesting from the perspective of a teacher, I should think.” I mention the apple here bring awareness to the untapped potential within teachers to not only revolutionize their own lives, but the lives of their students; the former happening simultaneously with the latter.
I then take a pot shot at teachers for their small-minded self-limiting tendencies; their institutionalized mentalities. Blaine continues, “Silenus, the fat old drunken satyr who was his teacher. He’s the one you always see on the back of a donkey, too sloshed to walk. There’s a kind of poetic justice in depicting a teacher as a drunk on the back of an ass.” As harsh as this may sound, my intention is to draw attention to what we could be and to what we could show our students simply by a change of heart and expansion of vision. This, of course, is all done satirically in the book, but my message is very much present. Over a meal of roast rabbit in a remote hollow, Blaine explains the motives behind Tim Schimmel’s creation of the education park: “Tim sees himself in the role of a Bacchus, a bringer of change, but he’s smart enough to know it can’t be done by himself, or even through himself. Rather, he understands that real change can only come from within individuals’ hearts and minds.”