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Experience and Discipline

Updated: May 30, 2023

The flint and steel of learning

Everybody who is somebody has written at least one poem about Odysseus. Homer, of course, but also Dante, Tennyson, and in the twentieth century, to name just a few: Stevens, Walcott, Merwin, and Joyce.

The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy is among the twentieth century interpreters of the Odysseus tale to a modern audience. His poem “Ithaca,” translated by Daniel Mendelsohn begins:

As you set out on your way to Ithaca

Hope that the road is a long one,

Filled with adventures, filled with discoveries.

Ithaca is the island kingdom where Odysseus’s wife Penelope and son Telemachus await his arrival after years of absence fighting in the Trojan war. It is the domestic scene to which Odysseus returns after the war and where he exercises his famous a-symmetrical thinking which won the Trojan War in securing his own kingdom and family.

A controversial figure in the poetic tradition, Odysseus is at the same time celebrated as a martial mastermind and vilified for being deceptive and restless. Tennyson’s famous poem “Ulysses” figures the hero as an aging adventurer restless with the workaday world of running a kingdom. Dante condemns him to hell in the circle of the false counselors.

Cafavy’s take is somewhat more philosophical, choosing Odysseus’s willing life of adventure as a model for our own endurance of the vicissitudes of life and of turning that experience into wisdom. Cavafy celebrates Odysseus as the man of experience, and commends the riches of a broad experience to us. Here is the whole poem:

As you set out on your way to Ithaca

Hope that the road is a long one,

Filled with adventures, filled with discoveries.

Hope that the road is a long one.

Many may the summer mornings be

When - with what pleasure, with what joy -

You first put in to harbors new to your eyes;

May you stop at Phoenician trading posts

And acquire the finest wares;

Mother of pearl, and coral, amber and ebony.

Always in your mind keep Ithaca,

To arrive there is your destiny.

But do not hurry your trip in any way.

Better that it last for many years;

That you drop anchor at the island an old man,

Rich with all you’ve gotten on the way

Not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey

Without her you wouldn’t have set upon the road...

And if you find her poor, Ithaca didn’t deceive you.

As wise as you will have become, with so much experience,

You will understand, by then, these Ithacas; what they mean.

The poem contains the curriculum of Odysseus’s life—a true curriculum vitae. King, conqueror, intellectual, rhetorician, tactician, husband, adventurer, father, explorer, and brawler...this is Odysseus not in his fancy, but in reality. He is the man of experience.

The Role of Experience

Odysseus appears so often in the poetic tradition in part because there is so much of him to appear. His CV has been picked over by poets and philosophers and pedagogues for centuries, and often with some resentment from those usually sedentary ranks.

Odysseus rightfully intimidates. We hold our manhood cheap until we can say like Odysseus that we have joined in so great an adventure and met it with so great a spirit. Like those that Henry V roused to battle at Agincourt, being a really nice guy is simply not the same as being one who can roll up his sleeve and show his scars.

Western art cannot forget Odysseus because his story has become an arch myth.… It constitutes the heart of so many individual human histories worthy the name. Odysseus is no longer just a man, however great a man he was. He so embodied the heart of adventure, of travel, of voyage, of homesickness, and nostos or homecoming, that we recall him in calling each iteration of these an odyssey. His name became universal because of the particularity of his experience.

This translation of the particular into the universal is an essential part of education. The moment a student makes the leap between an instance and an idea is beautiful because it fulfills the rational nature of the human being. No two of us have identical experiences, and yet we can share ideas because of our reason.

Often teachers are tempted to skip the experiential and go straight for the conceptual. In part this is because experience is hard and has to be earned. Also, schools are not generally built to accommodate experiential learning. But skipping experience for the purported learning that occurs only in the classroom removes the foundation for knowledge and will never result in wisdom.

The Role of Discipline

Experience is itself a great teacher, but it is also not sufficient for wisdom. Cavafy writes, “as wise as you will have become, with so much experience, you will understand….” But this combination of understanding and experience is missing a key ingredient which Cavafy leaves unsaid.

That ingredient is discipline. Mark Van Doren writes that:

“Discipline is desirable; indeed it is craved by all who want wisdom out of their experience, or ability out of their acts.”

That is to say that without discipline, our experience is nothing more dignified than a series of things happening to us from which we learn nothing, gain nothing, give nothing. Our acts, without discipline, are simply happenstance.

Experience is often painful. It etches its lessons on us like a sculptor imparting meaningful and beautiful shape to a block of marble or granite. But it is discipline that constitutes the integrity of the marble, it is discipline that makes the marble hard enough to take the cut and hold the lines that in the human soul are wisdom. Without discipline, experience will still be painful, will still make its cuts, but instead of marble or granite, it will chop away at a soft, formless blob … leaving no shape behind, certainly not wisdom.

Flint and Steel

For teachers, these facts imply an approach to education. Just as flint and steel together are capable of making a spark, so should education feature experience and discipline together. The best discipline, of course is chosen for oneself, meaning that the source of experience should include a motive for self-discipline. Projects to build or shape something, meaningful labor or adventure, and competition, as long as they are not construed as classroom busy-work all provide experience as well as the motive for self-discipline. Add the example of a strong, self-disciplined parent, teacher, coach, or boss, and you have the makings of true learning.

Taken together, experience and discipline are the flint and steel capable of kindling wisdom.


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