The Big Lie
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
I cannot rightly say how I entered it, I was so full of sleep at the moment I left the true way. --Dante
When we think about the idea of enlightenment, of turning on the light of learning for our students, it’s easy to face a trap. It’s the trap Dante warns us about throughout his journey in his Divine Comedy. The trap? Knowing is only part of the equation of an education.
As Dante opens the journey through the afterlife, he does so in an almost dream-like state. His vision is blurry and uncertain, he struggles with what he believes he is seeing--in short he is confused. The “true way” he is following, was the path of the expected. His life has been about following the path others set the guideposts for. He now, at this midpoint of his life, finds himself lost and uncertain. The path that has led him here has been a lie and he senses it and realizes it as the fact that nothing in his life has worked out “as it should.” His legalistic approach to living has yielded frustration and near despair.
Our students are on a journey as well--one every bit as urgent as Dante’s mid-life crisis. Many are seeking a trusted guide, a guide like Virgil who does not offer judgment, but does offer personal experience and reflection to the questions asked, even those outside the confines of curricula. What Dante discovers early on and throughout his way is that merely knowing the definition of justice does not make you just. It’s a nice turn of a phrase, but it is a phrase worth spending some time with. Knowledge is not learning and we should be careful not to allow our students to believe it is. Doing everything “by the book”--the legalistic approach to education and to life-- does not create critical thinkers much less creative innovators, much less resilient citizens. We should take every available opportunity to cultivate individuals capable of being alone in the interiority of themselves and use the “learning” we’ve offered to help them solve themselves. But we, like Dante’s Virgil, can serve as necessary guides.
Dante, through his trip to the afterlife, is able to realize that the truth he seeks was before him all along. It was contained in the living awareness of his encounter with life. It was not built upon the catalogue and cluster of memory and raw experience. It was not something that could be tested and quantified on some sort of scale. Dante was not given a test to demonstrate mastery of skills; he was given a life-- a life filled with joy and sorrow, often wildly out of balance. The same joys and sorrows we as well as our students encounter. Adversities that understanding the definition of doesn’t make the navigating any easier or less confusing. Instead, Dante’s salvation (perhaps ours as well) was the sum total of knowledge encounters married to reflection and connection--the twin saviours of education if we can put our faith in anything. Reflection and Connection.
As educators, our job is to create a union between experience/encounter and knowledge and reflection. Then, the next step is to follow this up with opportunities and models of how to connect or seek connection with the other. I urge you to look beyond the confines of your classroom and curricula, and utilize the metaphors of the other disciplines, especially literature. There is much to be gained by teaching our students and ourselves to connect beyond what is immediately before us. So listen to the closing words of Dante’s Inferno: “It [is] from here that we emerge to see--once more--the stars.”