A common theme I encounter in conversations with other home educators each spring, and often into the summer months, concerns preparation for the upcoming year. I’ve been classically homeschooling for over twenty-five years, and the liturgy of this assessing and planning season is an integral part of my own life, too—as fundamental to it as preparing for both daily needs and important yearly celebrations like Christmas and Easter.
Come April, I see many home educators evaluating what their students have achieved and learned in the past year as well as focusing on what they will now need to achieve and learn within the upcoming academic year. This planning is not just academic; it extends into many other areas such as athletics, the arts, and social activities.
One thing that has struck me, especially as the years have passed, is how geared to the “now” so many of these conversations are. That’s not a bad thing—it’s important to live, as they say, “in the moment.” However, so many of the positive attributes of the moment, for example resting in and relishing the space and time in which one is living within a comprehension of what human life is and signifies—living in leisure, which Josef Pieper describes in part as “a condition of the soul . . . that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality” (Leisure, The Basis of Culture)—seem so often to become lost in deep wells of anxiety. The “now” is overcome by concerns with how to assess, train, and even relate to our children, especially in this digital age; how to evaluate all the curricula clamoring and competing for our attention and dollars; how to set up our “learning spaces”; how to meet extracurricular and social needs; and how to make sure no balls are dropped as we prepare our students for that ever looming specter: The Future.
But here’s the rub: Do we know what the future is?
Our answers to this question are vague at best. We can’t predict what the world will look like when we graduate our students from high school. Even though we can anticipate what they may do as young adults—whether it be to enter the workforce right away in a particular area, or attend college to obtain a certain degree, or join the mission field—we can’t see where they will be or what they will be doing in a decade after that . . . or even more obviously, in the decades that follow their first ten years of independence. This is particularly true in our society today, inundated as it is with tides of change, some of which are far beyond what we can foresee, or sometimes even imagine, from one decade to the next.
Given that, how can we know how to prepare our children?
For answers, we tend to turn to published educational objectives, to government guidelines, and to checklists we can implement. We believe that if we cross a specific goal off a list, such as mastering the multiplication tables in the third grade or reading a certain collection of classics in middle school, that aspect of learning is completed, and we can move on to the next checklist for the next year. This eases our anxieties; checklists help us feel more at ease with the uncertainties we face. But they do not remove the ambiguities inherent in raising and teaching human beings for futures that are inherently beyond our knowing.
Life according to checklists is not “living in the moment,” but imposing upon the moment a blueprint for what we—or those whose opinions we respect and value—think it should look like. “Living in the moment” is far more multidimensional than that. It’s not a clinical, “check box” state of being but is instead a breadth and depth of understanding of human beings and human life: It involves being in the moment while simultaneously having the insight and foresight to be outside the moment.
Let me turn to C. S. Lewis’ Great Divorce, an unsettling tale of heaven and hell, to explain. As so many great stories do, this book weaves the account of a pilgrim on an extraordinary journey. Lewis’ fantastic narrative is quite unlike most other stories, and yet in classic Lewis style it’s nonetheless universal: The hero is on a challenging journey into the unknown towards a priceless goal; he is aided along the way by those who may help him see and do what is right in the face of obstacles and confusions; and in his uniquely individual way he reflects and represents us all. Unexpectedly, and maybe even ironically to our Cartesian-trained, STEM-besotted minds, imagination so often expresses, even exposes, reality.
Lewis’ pilgrim, the narrator in this story, has no name. Every time I read The Great Divorce, I can’t shake the feeling that the narrator is Lewis, that the “dreamer” in the story is indeed Jack himself—a type of Dante, upon whom special revelation descends and which his vocation demands he pass along. Lewis has that gift of making me feel like he is talking directly to me, personally . . . as though he knows I’ll be wondering about the very things he addresses and asking the very questions he wants to help me answer.
I also can’t help thinking that Lewis, a man I’ve heard recited Homer in the trenches of the Great War, recalls Homer’s great pilgrim, Odysseus, and in that line of thought I know Lewis must have relished the little joke in the Odyssey when wily Odysseus mocks and outwits the Cyclops as he tells Polyphemus that his name is outis; in the Greek this is a combination of ou and tis meaning “not anybody” and translated as “nobody.” Thus, Outis has often been used as a pseudonym by those wishing to remain anonymous. In the context of this story-within-the-story in the Odyssey, Odysseus’ clever ruse means that when Polyphemus shouts for help as he is being attacked by Odysseus and his men, the other Cyclops do not come to his aid; they hear him ridiculously pleading for help because “nobody” is assailing him.
This wily trick is typical of Odysseus, famous for his tactical and strategic thinking—the Homeric icon of craftiness. In fact, the wordplay is even more clever than the trick, for in the Greek, ou tis not only phonetically is a rhyme with me tis, meaning “not anyone,” but it in turn evokes meti, meaning “cunning,” a word which epitomizes Odysseus. The other Cyclops in fact respond to Polyphemus’ cries for help using me tis in their reply to him, so the pun—one which we modern English speakers must go in search of and labor to explain—is obvious in the Greek.
The question for me then becomes, “Why is Lewis’ narrator Outis? Why does he remain nameless?” First, I remember that the pilgrim in Lewis’ story is a type of Odysseus. He is a wanderer, seeking his way home. He even visits an underworld. His curiosity and desire to see and understand, like that of Odysseus, compel him; he is a questioner, a thinker, a seeker. I suspect yet another answer might be that in anonymity the narrator solidifies his status as a universal prototype: Like Odysseus, he is a “nobody” who stands in for “everybody.”
As in the morality tales of old, exemplified by such as the famous, fifteenth-century English Everyman, The Great Divorce is primarily a moral story concerned with the significance of choices between right and wrong and the consequences built upon such choices. Knowing that Lewis was a medieval scholar, and realizing that just as he would have known about Homer’s little pun in the Odyssey he would have been familiar with Everyman, a tale of the death and the immortality of the soul, I can’t keep myself from suspecting that it was no accident that the main character of The Great Divorce remains nameless so that as readers we readily put ourselves in his place and learn what he learns, no matter what our unique characters and cultures may be. Again, seeming to anticipate my train of thought, Lewis ends his introduction to the book, written in April of 1945, with: “I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course—or I intended it to have—a moral.”
Our pilgrim’s mentor in the The Great Divorce is a man whose expeditions into fantasy inspired Lewis himself to write in that vein—George MacDonald (another reason why it seems Lewis intended us to understand that he himself is the storyteller in the tale). And at a pivotal part in the story, Lewis asks, “Is judgment not final? Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?” MacDonald explains:
“Son,” he said, “ye cannot in your present state understand eternity. . . . But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. . . . And that is why, at the end of all things . . . the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”
Understanding what MacDonald proposes entails not just comprehending but absorbing the truth that even while we live temporally, we’re living eternally. In fact, once our temporal lives are over, we will perhaps find that they seamlessly integrate into immortality. I like to think of it this way: We are living inside (in time) the outside (eternity).
“Living in the moment” means grasping this: Every step we take with our children has importance in the here-and-now, but it also has implication and consequence in five years, ten years, twenty years . . . and, ultimately, forever. While we make sure our children learn their Latin declensions and conjugations, while we see that they drill their multiplication tables, while we help them read history and surround them with literature, while we introduce them to great art and music, we also need to consistently keep in mind what human beings need not just now and maybe next year or the year after that, but what they need as they grow, live, and exist eternally.
It’s not enough to wait until a child needs something to suddenly scramble to provide that need (it may be necessary in extreme cases, but it should not be the norm). Most things, and all the important things, must be laid down, like unfurling red carpets, and established before the children will want to be equipped with and have access to what they need.
It isn’t the multiplication tables in themselves that are important—it’s what they will be used for later. One must teach the alphabet not for its own sake, but for the use to which it will be put. Stories are entertaining and diverting, but that is not their truest purpose—they are given, like wine, to enrich the moment; but they give far grander gifts that later provide children with a wealth of knowledge about the world, human beings, and themselves. It isn’t the team sport, and the winning or the losing, that most matters—it’s the skills, on all levels from the physical to the spiritual, that sports provide for future use in health and in interactions in communities. The friendships we help our children cultivate in their early elementary years will set the foundation for companionship when they are teens who, seemingly upon a dime, will suddenly be set on separating themselves from their parents and families as they naturally seek to embark on independent lives as adults.
Focusing on the moment is important. “Living in the moment” is critical. But it is even more significant to do so, as it were, from the inside out.
How does one do that?
As a classical educator, I believe we do it by asking ourselves the following kinds of questions (which of course will vary with the ages, characters, and personalities of our children): What will my Kindergartner need? What will he need in five years? Ten years? What will he need as an adult? What will he need as a human being with an eternal soul who seeks his true home?
When you’ve answered those questions, then immediately reverse the process: Teach, model, and provide the answers to the last question first and work backwards. Keep your eye on eternity while providing what is needed temporally.
As Lewis also once said, “Aim at heaven, and you will get earth thrown in.” We must be crafty as Odysseus while we journey home, mentors alongside, and pilgrims with, our students. The moral is that we need to formulate our choices and tactics from within the perspective of an efficacious strategy: Plan for the next academic year by remembering to move forward with intentional awareness that we are “inside the outside.”