Homer’s Odyssey endures for its poetic beauty, its deep and noble claims about humanity, and its historical significance for Western literature and Western civilization. It also helps that it has some of the most vivid and memorable scenes in all of Western literature. One of those scenes is when Odysseus and his men are on their journey back from the Trojan War. They are heading home, to the island of Ithaca, Odysseus’ homeland. In book nine they have been thrust onto the island of the Lotus-eaters. Here is Odysseus’ account, book nine, lines 85-117.
The Odyssey by Homer, Book Nine, lines 85-117
When Dawn with her lovely locks
brought on the third day,
then stepping the masts and hoisting white sails high,
we lounged at the oarlocks,
letting the wind and helmsmen
keep us true on course . . .
And now, at long last,
I might have reached my native land unscathed,
but just as I doubled Malea’s cape, a tide-rip
and the North Wind drove me way off course
careering past Cythera.
Nine whole days
I was borne along by rough, deadly winds
on the fish-infested sea. Then on the tenth
our squadron reached the land of the Lotus-eaters,
people who eat the lotus, mellow with fruit and flower.
We disembarked on the coast, drew water there
and crewmen snatched a meal by the swift ships.
Once we’ve had our fill of food and drink I sent
a detail ahead, two picked men and a third, a runner,
to scout out who might life there—men like us perhaps,
who live on bread? So off they went and soon enough
they mingled among the natives, Lotus-eaters,
Lotus-eaters who had no notion of killing
my companions, not at all,
they simply gave them the lotus to taste instead . . .
Any crewmen who ate the lotus, the honey-sweet fruit,
lost all desire to send a message back, much less return,
their only wish to linger there with the Lotus-eaters,
grazing on lotus, all memory of the journey home
dissolved forever. But I brought them back, back
to the hollow ships, and streaming tears—I forced them,
hauled them under the rowing benches, lashed them fast
and shouted out commands
to my other, steady comrades:
‘Quick, no time to lose, embark in the racing ships!’--
so none could eat the lotus, forget the voyage home.
They swung aboard at once,
they sat at the oars in ranks
and in rhythm churned the water white
with stroke on stroke.
Each time I teach this scene, I see greater and deeper truths, not only for myself, but for education. At one time or another, I have found myself acting like Odysseus. I have found friends and colleagues marching onto a dangerous island and consuming those things which would pull them from the good work set before us. At other times I have been the man marching onto the island, needing an Odysseus to pin me under his arms and haul me back to the ships. Whatever the case, we have two important duties as parents and educators.
First, we must determine where home is. The motif of home is not only central to Homer’s Odyssey, it is central to this scene. And it is central to the good life. Home is our final destination. Home is the end for which we were created. Home is the place where we ultimately find rest. And while home is our end, it is also our origin. Home is the soil from which our roots have grown and to which our leaves will fall. If we do not set our compass toward home, we will never know when we have strayed off course. It is the same with us as parents and educators. What is our goal? What has God called us to? And in what ways are we surrounded by islands filled with Lotus flowers and Lotus eaters? As G.K. Chesterton said,
“Man has always lost his way. He has been a tramp ever since Eden; but he always knew, or thought he knew, what he was looking for. Every man has a house somewhere in the elaborate cosmos…But in the bleak and blinding hail of skepticism to which he has been now so long subjected, he has begun for the first time to be chilled, not merely in his hopes, but in his desires. For the first time in history he begins really to doubt the object of his wanderings on the earth. He has always lost his way; but now he has lost his address.” (Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World)
Not only must we as parents and educators renew our interest and love for the ideal, our home, we must determine, in our voyage toward the goal, toward home, what those things are which are ready and willing to land us among the Lotus-eaters and so find in ourselves and others “all memory of the journey home dissolved forever.” What is it that causes our administrators, our teachers, our school boards, our legislatures, our departments of education, and our parents to lose all memory of home? What are those things which distract and cause us to forget our destination, forget our journey, and forego our purpose? I suspect there are some things which are such pervasive lotus flowers in contemporary American education that we assume they just belong there. We may even forget they are there and therefore think their effects on us are normative and good, even necessary. These lotus flowers cross from state to state and consume our country’s educational imagination. I suspect there are still other educational lotus flowers which are regional, which locally tempt our students to lose focus on what education is all about. We can easily see that technology, sports, college and career readiness, standardized testing, and a fabricated American high school experience all have lotus-like qualities. They are mesmerizing; they are dizzying. Ultimately, they are great catalysts for our educational forgetfulness.
If we want to get education right in the 21st century, if we want to get it right for our children and our children’s children, we indeed need insight and courage like Odysseus. We need to have a steely-eyed focus on where home is, what the ideals of education are, and we ought not to rest until we are there. There is no room for compromise. After all, education has eternal consequences.