by Sara Breetzke, TCA Head of School
At Trinity Classical Academy, we want to think differently about education. To this end, we’ve been renarrating our experience of education through the story of a pilgrimage. You can read more about this big idea here.
This year, as we began our journey anew, I sought to gain insight from another group of pilgrims: those found in The Canterbury Tales. Although their journey is fictional, Chaucer’s collection of travel stories offers both wisdom and warning for anyone setting out on a pilgrimage.
Chaucer wrote in the 1300’s. This medieval era was marked by the plague, political corruption, and the struggle to survive each day. Our current moment is not so different. In 2018 we still experience illness, political disillusionment, and the malaise of everyday life. Yet while we have our smart phones and Netflix to offer us a virtual escape, medieval pilgrims undertook real adventures away from home.
Each spring, pilgrims in the medieval times embarked on journeys that would give them a new view of the world. Men and women who had likely never left their small villages would see towering cathedrals and ancient relics, offering them an experience of transcendence and awe.
Similarly, as teachers and students, our journey of education begins with hope and excitement: in the next school year, we will experience new worlds, new stories, and, hopefully, a greater knowledge of God’s character, power, and love. In learning, we seek something beyond ourselves and our current moment. We, too, are pilgrims.
Chaucer’s story begins with this sense of anticipation. Spring is bursting forth, and 29 diverse and remarkable pilgrims gather together at an inn to begin their journey to Canterbury. Their destination is the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket, the martyr known for helping those who are sick and in need.
The pilgrims setting off on this grand gesture of faith are remarkable in the breadth of classes, experiences, and personalities they represent. Despite their differences, during their first evening together they bond though their common destination. They quickly identify themselves as a company, literally meaning “breaking bread together,” aligning themselves in purpose and shared humanity.
Ideally, this idea of a company would define any group of educational pilgrims as well. At TCA, we are indeed a group of diverse people with a common need for grace and truth. This starting place of humility and shared destination transforms a school, and what begins as a random group of learners grows into a community.
Here is where Chaucer’s roadmap ends and his warning begins. When the Host of the inn observes this intimate and joyful group of pilgrims, he takes a liking to them, and he offers to guide the company on their way. Before they begin, though, he casts their journey in a different light, subtly suggesting that perhaps the martyr, St. Thomas, owes them something for their sacrifices in travel.
Furthermore, anticipating that the road ahead may be arduous, the Host introduces the idea of a little competition. Each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way to the shrine and two on the way back. The Host will choose the best story, and the reward will be a meal, purchased by the pilgrims at the Host’s inn upon their return. In his system, everyone wins. The pilgrims are entertained on and rewarded for their journey, and the host has guaranteed 29 customers at his inn.
The Host’s enterprising idea, readily accepted by the pilgrims, changes the whole course of Chaucer’s story. No longer do we hear of the bountiful spring or the pilgrim’s holy destination. Everything now pivots around the pilgrim’s tales and their battling egos. Indeed, the pilgrims are increasingly at odds with each other as each tells his tale. Their tales belittle the vocations of other pilgrims, compete in theme, and devolve into bickering. What began as a journey toward transcendence becomes a competition for power and status.
Chaucer never finished his ambitious Tales. The final narrative would have included 120 tales: 4 from each of the pilgrims. The stories we have, though, show no sign that the pilgrims will return to the hopefulness with which they started their journey.
Unfortunately, the change Chaucer describes in the Canterbury pilgrims is all too often the change that occurs in us as educational pilgrims. What begins as a journey toward God and Truth in August can quickly become an exhausting competition of test scores, comparison, and ego-boosting by May. After all, shouldn’t we have a measurable reward for all of our work? Instead of seeing our journey as an act of worship, it becomes an act of self-glorification.
As we begin the school year, then, we want God to keep us on the path toward Him this year. Specifically, we can learn three truths from the Canterbury pilgrims.
1. Choose a Guide Wisely
Just as the Host distracted the pilgrims with talk of rewards and competition, much of the literature about education encourages us to think of it in economic terms: class rank, scores, GPA. Instead, we want Christ to be our guide and encourager. We are measured by his faithfulness, not by our achievements.
2. Remember the Destination
The pilgrims’ Host caught them up into a competition that caused them to forget the true purpose of their journey. He thought this would keep them entertained, but instead their own glory and power became the focal point. This is a temptation on the journey of education, too, so we must ask God to keep us on the path toward Christ. Knowledge about Him and likeness to Him are our goals - for His glory and power.
3. Maintain the Company
At TCA we have the privilege of journeying together and reminding each other of our destination. We don’t travel together so that we can use each other as measuring sticks to see who is the best; rather, we travel together for encouragement toward Christ, appreciation of the unique souls God has created, and enjoyment of the good work God has given us to do as educators.