As we approach the Capstone Retreat on February 26 and the Capstone Conference on March 26, it may be time to think about Telemachus and why we’re all so hard at work.
The Odyssey, the old song of Odysseus and his years of wandering home from the siege and sacking of Troy, begins with Odysseus’ son Telemachus, a young man who has grown from infancy to twenty years of age with his father wholly absent. He is sitting in his father’s house in Ithaca, the only son and heir of a great but missing king. His ancient home is full of rabblerousing and vicious men- his friends, the suitors—upstarts and gluttons truth-be-told. Each of them pines for the hand of Telemachus’ mother, the faithful Penelope, whose husband they presume to be dead.
These men, these halls—these are the preconditions of Telemachus’ great awakening. Telemachus, aided by the wily, gray-eyed goddess Athena, must learn to reject the dissipation and vulgarity of the suitors, must take his place in the Ithacan assembly, must proclaim openly their shame and misdeeds (though to no avail). And then he must take up a journey of his own, a journey to discover the true fate of his father. So, though the father is unquestionably the subject of this ancient song, it yet seems that at the domestic heart of this homeward-bound tale is a child’s learning. The child learns to take up the mantle of his great lineage and to do so in the midst of a society that has lost its way and abounds in ignorance and vice.
I spent a few years teaching this story to sixth graders at North Campus, and as I now help guide the seniors of Midtown toward the completion of their Classical Capstones, I find myself thinking of Telemachus again. His story resonates powerfully throughout the three stages of a classical education, and it speaks too of the Christian vision of what these seniors have been up to during their time at our school.
What is an education for? The acquisition of skill? Admission into a prestigious university or desired program? One required step toward a successful career? A mechanism for challenging or maintaining class power? Ideological inculcation? Likely a smattering of possible answers jumbles in our minds. Yet Telemachus reminds us that the kind of deep education we’re about at our school centers around the real presence of God in the world. The voice of wisdom, that is the call of Jesus, to each of us, telling us to turn away from the strongholds of apathy and despair and to claim our lineage as the repentant heirs of a great king. To honor our parents, to take up the pathways of a kingdom adventure. In this way, like the great poem itself, true education is a journey from confusion and dissipation to self-knowledge and arrival home. It isn’t a story of individual aspiration, but of communal participation.
To this end, every year our seniors take up the task of returning home, and, like Telemachus, speaking with the voice of wisdom to their community for its good. This quarter will see the completion of this process, the full drafting and revision of each senior’s research projects and presentations. Right now, these students are hard at work, deep in the wilderness of their studious wanderings guided by a faculty committed to their good. Would you pray for them? Pray that each one seeks not only to finish and finish well but truly to listen to the voice of Wisdom and so take up the ancient call—the ancient turning toward truth, and rest, and home.