Classical Thought for Contemporary Culture

The School as Tapestry: The Six Dimensions of School Life

The School as Tapestry: The Six Dimensions of School Life


From the Winter 2017 Issue

The Iliad and the Odyssey are home-centered poems. In the Iliad, The Trojans fight to protect their homes, while the Danaans fight to heal the home of Menelaus and Helen, which has been broken by Paris’ theft. Meanwhile in the Odyssey, Odysseus faces the perils of gods, goddesses, monsters, and men while on his quest to return home. And, Telemachos and Penelope strive, year after year,  to hold onto their home against the tide of suitors that threaten it.

Yet, the Odyssey feels more domestic than its violent counterpart, perhaps because of a recurring motif which runs throughout: weaving. It first appears in Book I when Telemachos, frustrated with his mother Penelope’s insistence that songs of the Danaan return from Troy not be sung, replies:

Go therefore back in the house, and take up your own work,
the loom and the distaff, and see to it that your handmaidens
ply their work also… (lines 356-358)

This weaving motif continues throughout the Odyssey, and while it is viewed as “women’s work,” the loom serves as a powerful tool in the epic—for good and ill, healing and destruction.


Weavers of Forgetfulness

In Book IV, Telemachos arrives in Sparta to inquire of Menelaos the whereabouts of his father, Odysseus. Helen, Menelaos’s wife and “the face that launched a thousand ships”, now home, joins the men with her workbox full of yarn by her side (IV.120-134). At first glance, Her weaving seems little more than stitching to pass the time. But in the Odyssey, weaving indicates a plan.

Knowing the horror and heartache of the Trojan War, freshly recounted by her husband in conversation with Telemachos, and hearing of the woes of Ithaka, Helen wants the men to forget for a while.  She offers them wine mixed with a drug that causes men to lose all care, sorrow, and ill humor. Helen is a weaver of forgetfulness. She hopes Menelaos can lay aside the dreadful memories of war and that Telemachos can dull the heartache of missing his father.  

Into the wine of which they were drinking she cast a medicine
of heartsease, free of gall, to make one forget all sorrows,
and whoever had drunk it down once it had been mixed in the wine  bowl,
for the day that he drank it would have no tear roll down his face… 

Later, in Book V, another episode of weaving occurs. The gods are on Mount Olympus, discussing the plight of Odysseus, and Athene implores Zeus to allow the hero to return to Ithaka. Her request is granted under the condition that Odysseus not be convoyed by either god or man and that he would continue to face a perilous voyage on a raft until reaching Scheria, the island of the Phaiakians. 

Hermes, the messenger god, takes word of Zeus’s decision to Kalypso’s island, where Odysseus has been stranded for seven years and the goddess is less than happy. Over those seven years, Odysseus has spent his days weeping for home and his nights sleeping with Kalypso under the force of her enchantment. 

Hermes arrives on the beautiful island, finding Kalypso at home, a warm fire on the hearth, the goddess sweetly singing while working at her loom. She is angered by the gods’ message but she cannot resist the will of Zeus, so she tells Odysseus he can leave. When Odysseus hears her promise to let him leave he believes the goddess is weaving a plot for his destruction: “I will not go aboard any raft without your good will, nor unless you can bring yourself to swear me a great oath that this is not some painful trial you are planning against me” (V.177-179).

And, indeed, Kalypso does have a plan, but not for Odysseus’ destruction. Rather, she makes one final attempt to convince him to remain on the island.

Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus,
are you still all so eager to go on back to your own house
and the land of your fathers?  I wish you well, however you do it,
but if you only knew in your own heart how many hardships
you were fated to undergo before getting back to your country,
you would stay here with me and be the lord of this household
and be an immortal, for all your longing once more to look on
that wife for whom you are pining all your days here.  And yet
I think that I can claim that I am not her inferior
either in build or stature, since it is not likely that mortal
women can challenge the goddess for build and beauty.

Like Helen, Kalypso is also a weaver of forgetfulness, tempting Odysseus to let go of his homesickness and his love of Penelope in favor of ease, beauty, and immortality. But Odysseus’s reply demonstrates his devotion to his family:

Goddess and queen, do not be angry with me.  I myself know
that all you say is true and that circumspect Penelope
can never match the impression you make for beauty and stature.
She is mortal after all, and you are immortal and ageless.
But even so, what I want and all my days I pine for
is to go back to my house and see my days of homecoming.

In Book VI this weaving motif appears again, this time when Nausikaa, princess of the Phaiakians, discovers Odysseus washed up on their island. She and her maidservants find Odysseus hidden in the bushes, nearly naked and covered in salty sea grime. Emboldened by Athene, the princess does not run away, but allows him to bathe while she and the maidens stand aside. 

Then she gives him clothing and takes him to her father’s palace, but only after Athene has transfigured Odysseus into a handsome, godlike figure. Beholding him, Nausikaa begins to consider that this is just the kind of man she wants for a husband. 

A while ago he seemed an unpromising man to me.  Now
he even resembles one of the gods, who hold high heaven.
If only the man to be called my husband could be like this one,
a man living here, if only this one were pleased to stay here.

In far subtler fashion than Kalypso, Nausikaa also is a weaver of forgetfulness. Will Odysseus continue his perilous journey, or remain with Nausikaa, in the comforts of Scheria? As she leads him to her father’s palace, Nausikaa guesses at the thoughts of those they pass —“Who is this large and handsome stranger whom Nausikaa has with her, and where did she find him? Surely he is to be her husband…” (VI.276-278).

While in Scheria, a banquet is thrown in Odysseus’ honor, during which he is asked to share his story. The most familiar and memorable details of the epic are found in these books (IX-XII). In Book X, Odysseus recounts how he and his men arrived on Circe’s island where they discover Circe singing beautifully and weaving at her loom (again, a cue that a plot is being woven):

They stood there in the forecourt of the goddess with the glorious
hair, heard Circe inside singing in a sweet voice
as she went up and down a great design on a loom, immortal
such as goddesses have, delicate and lovely and glorious
their work. (X.220-224)

She brought them inside and seated them on chairs and benches,
and mixed them a potion, with barley and cheese and pale honey
added to Pramneian wine, but put into the mixture
malignant drugs, to make them forgetful of their own country.

Like Helen, Circe enchants her guests with drugged wine, but unlike Helen she then transforms them into beasts that, apparently, reflect their character. Like Helen, Circe is weaving a plot of forgetfulness, causing the men to forget their homeland. Unlike Helen, however, Circe’s intent is imprisonment, not mercy.

Odysseus, through the help of Hermes and the magical moly flower, drinks Circe’s wine but remains unchanged, much to the confusion and fright of Circe. Yet, Odysseus and his men are nonetheless drawn into the fine lodgings and food of Circe’s palace, remaining there for a full year and losing track of time. 

So Circe, like Helen, Kalypso, and Nausikaa, is a weaver of forgetfulness. 


Weavers of Destruction

Before leaving her island, Circe tells Odysseus that, although he will return home, he must first journey to the house of Hades and revered Persephone to inquire of the blind prophet, Teiresias, who will provide counsel for the remainder of his journey back to Ithaka. From the prophet, Odysseus learns of the great troubles back home, particularly the number of suitors who daily seek the hand of his wife, Penelope.

While in Hades, Odysseus encounters many perished souls, including Agamemnon, the King of Mykene who led the Greeks against Troy, but who, upon returning home, was killed by his wife Klytaimestra with the help of her lover, Aegisthus. 

Klytaimestra was angry with her husband because before sailing to Troy, he had offered up his daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice in exchange for favorable winds. So, understandably, Klytaimestra never forgave Agamemnon and plotted his death for the decade he was away. 

As part of her vengeful plan, Klytaimestra wove fine tapestries of crimson into a red carpet for Agamemnon to walk upon as he entered his palace. The carpets, symbolic of the blood upon which Agamemnon had already tread, literally lead him to his death. Aeschylus, in his play Agamemnon, describes the scene:

Women, why delay? You have your orders.
Pave his way with tapestries.  Quickly.
Let the red stream flow and bear him home
to the home he never hoped to see – Justice,
lead him in!  Leave all the rest to me.
(lines 900-904) 

Reluctantly stepping onto the red carpets, Agamemnon calls for servants to remove his boots:

Let someone help me off with these at least.
Old slaves, they’ve stood me well.
Hurry, and while I tread his splendours dyed red in the sea,
may no god watch and strike me down with envy
from on high.  I feel such shame – 
to tread the life of the house, a kingdom’s worth
of silver in the weaving.
(lines 941-947)

Once inside the palace, Agamemnon settles into the comforts of home by taking a bath, the very place where Klytaimestra’s gruesome plan is fulfilled. She stabs Agamemnon to death in the bath, to the horror of the townsmen. In the play, the Chorus calls: “Oh my king, my captain, How to salute you, how to mourn you? What can I say with all my warmth and love? Here in the black widow’s web you lie, Gasping out your life” (lines 1517-1521).

So while in the Odyssey, Helen, Kalypso, Nausikaa, and Circe are weavers of forgetfulness, Klytaimestra is a weaver of destruction, a “black widow.”

Upon their meeting in Hades, Agamemnon relates his story to Odysseus, warning him to never trust a woman. Though acknowledging the goodness of Penelope, Agamemnon cautions Odysseus to never let his wife know his full mind. Could Penelope be weaving destruction for Odysseus? Could Penelope have her own Aegisthus waiting in the wings?

Agamemnon’s advice, in addition to ignoring his own culpability in his circumstances, was in keeping with how most of the women in the Odyssey are portrayed. Women are ever-present in the tale, but rarely are they flatteringly portrayed.  The women are manipulative, dangerous, and even deadly. 


The Weaver of Remembrance

But Penelope is different. She is not another woman in the story, she is the woman.  

Her weaving plays a major role in the Odyssey, but in a way that starkly contrasts her character with the “weavers of forgetfulness,” and even more so with Klytaimestra, the “weaver of destruction.” Harassed by unworthy suitors who, insisting that Odysseus must be dead, want to marry her, Penelope takes to her loom, claiming that before she can choose a husband she must first weave a burial shroud for Laertes, her father-in-law. She labors all day at the shroud, only to unravel her work by torchlight each night.  For three years she tricks the suitors with her loom. They call upon her to forget Odysseus and remarry, but Penelope is a weaver of remembrance, and her tapestry buys time for her husband’s return.

Penelope is no “black widow.” She is no Klytaimestra. Penelope is crafty and clever — perhaps more so than any other woman in the story — but she uses her wiles to protect her husband and her household. Her loom is an instrument of life for her long-awaited Odysseus, whose return marks triumph over war, temptation, forgetfulness, and death.

But, how does weaving in the Odyssey relate to the life of a school or homeschool?


Weaving & the Life of a School

Every school setting is a tapestry, and every parent, board member, headmaster, teacher, and student is a weaver. In fact, it could be argued that every member of the school community is one of the three kinds of weavers described by Homer and Aeschylus: a weaver of forgetfulness, a weaver of destruction, or a weaver of remembrance. They help form the image of the school – not in the sense of what the school wants to appear to be, but what it actually is.

A school tapestry includes six threads (or, as we often call them at CiRCE, six dimensions), all interwoven and inextricably connected. If one thread is pulled, all the others feel the tension. If one is cut or frayed, the whole tapestry is marred. These six threads are environment, community, governance, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment.

The Six Threads (or Dimensions)

Environment – Every school has an environment, the aspects of which are often out of the school’s immediate control. The city or town in which the school resides, the neighborhood and surrounding houses, complete with their economic conditions, demographics, culture, and history, all form the environment.

Although many of these factors are beyond the school’s control, they must be weighed and kept in mind when making decisions. How is offering a classical education in Brooklyn different from offering it in rural Nebraska? What part does environment play in recruiting, training, and retaining teachers? What sorts of blessings or obstacles might students and their families face that are unique to an environment?

These questions, and others like them, are an important and influential thread of school life – one that directly affects all the other dimensions. A school’s environment inextricably colors the school’s community.

Community – Every person connected with a school – the parents, students, teachers, board members, headmaster--form the school community. For many schools, the community might include churches and outside organizations that support it, and therefore bear some influence over the “feel” and emphasis of the school.

All of these personalities, interests, and influences form the school, for good or ill. Does the school community understand classical education? Has it been given the opportunity and expectation to do so? What is the “spirit” of the school community? Is it Joyful? Grumbling? Peaceful? Eager to learn?

One should also consider the aesthetic characteristics of the school. What do the classrooms, hallways, buildings, and grounds look like? What sounds, smells, and sights greet the members of the community? What aesthetics are being woven into the school, and how do they affect the tapestry?

The Greek word “paideia” (παιδεια) referred not only to education in the formal sense, but to “upbringing” and “culture.” The Greeks understood education as enculturation, not simply as a place in which information is given out. Such an understanding of the community thread is consistent with the familiar command from Deuteronomy 6:5-9:

 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

Governance – The decision-makers make up another thread in the tapestry of the school.  What drives the decisions of the school’s leadership? What guides and governs their thoughts as they guide and govern the school? How are policies, procedures, and manuals produced? Is the dominant concern of the governors financial? Is the school governed with modern business practices, or with clear understanding of the school as a place of enculturation? Does the board and headmaster consider the other threads of school life when making decisions (i.e., how a rule change affects community, or how a budget cut might affect pedagogy, or how a marketing campaign might affect student assessment)?

Curriculum – The term “curriculum” refers to the course or path students are expected to follow. A curriculum leads students on a journey, so a school must ask where its curriculum will lead a student. Where should it lead them? Where do they need to go?

Curriculum choices, then, are not merely a matter of budgetary concern or (parental or teacher) preference, but a question of what helps cultivate wisdom and virtue in the students. David Hicks writes in Norms and Nobility that “The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.” Does the curriculum help toward that aim?

Classically speaking, there really is no curriculum outside of the seven liberal arts of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric (the arts of the Trivium), astronomy, geometry, harmonics/music, and arithmetic (the arts of the Quadrivium). These are the “liberal” arts, not in the modern political sense of the term, but in the sense that they “liberate.” They train up free men and women.

The Latin term for education, educere, highlights this liberation. It means “to lead out,” and is likely connected to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Republic, Book VII). Education is leading men and women out of the cave, out of the shadows, freed from their bonds, into the glorious light of truth, goodness, and beauty. The liberal arts curriculum is the path from the cave to the real world.

Pedagogy – How is such a curriculum taught? Classical pedagogy involves mimetic and Socratic teaching.

Mimesis is an imitation, not of the outward form, but of the inner idea — not ultimately of an action, but of an idea expressed in the action. Mimetic teaching leads students to understand ideas by contemplating models or types of them. These models can be found in literature, history, mathematics, the fine arts, music, other human arts and activities, and nature.

Socratic instruction, with its reliance upon probing questions, is primarily used when a student is in error. Questioning can reveal where the error has occurred, correct it, then guide the student in building accurate understanding.

Assessment – How does the school assess its students, teachers, headmaster, curriculum, and board? By what standard? What measure? Does the means of assessment match the pedagogy and curriculum? Does the school claim to pursue wisdom and virtue, but measure student success by standardized test scores and college admissions? Does the school encourage teachers to teach classically, but measure them largely by student feedback?


Becoming Wise Weavers

Every school is a tapestry, always on the loom, with these six threads being continually woven together by multiple weavers. Being wise weavers means, foremost, understanding and remembering the nature of a school, which is not a business, or a factory, and cannot be treated as if it were (without great harm).

The weaving done with one thread affects every other thread. Yet, schools rarely make decisions with the tapestry in mind, operating as if the six threads lie separately on a table. Failing to see their interconnectedness, decisions are made in isolation and kinks in the tapestry go unnoticed. But, a wise weaver understands that the threads are connected and that, therefore, decisions must be made with the whole tapestry in mind.

When a school board determines that standardized test scores must go up, is it merely a governance decision? That mandate (governance), given to the headmaster, is woven into what he or she emphasizes to teachers. Teachers, in turn, must evaluate their teaching against what is covered on the test (curriculum) and shift their emphases to match it (pedagogy). Test scores are increasingly seen as the measure of success by students and parents as well (assessment), which further affects the school’s philosophy of education and learning (community). Finally, a school’s philosophy of education and learning invariably influences the reputation of the school (environment).

The same interconnectedness can be seen in lunchroom rules, dress code requirements, grievance policies, student honor codes, and Latin book selections. Weaving requires great wisdom.

The weavers described by Homer and Aeschylus reside at the loom of nearly every school – weavers of forgetfulness, weavers of destruction, and weavers of remembrance.

Weavers of forgetfulness tempt a school to stray from its vocation and commission, to look away from its calling, if only for a moment. Weavers of forgetfulness come in many forms - those who pressure the school to offer the trappings of conventional schools, members of the community who have no interest in classical education, to name just a few. Rarely do these weavers mean harm. Most of them are Nausikaa or Helen, not Calypso or Circe. Yet, though they mean well, they can still mar the tapestry.

Weavers of destruction can also be subtle. It is interesting that Klytaimestra used her red carpets to lure Agamemnon into the palace, leading him to his destruction under the guise of honoring him, saying, “never set the foot that stamped out Troy on earth again, my great one” (lines 898–899). One could argue, as many in Argos did, that she was simply wicked, but her motive was all-too-understandable. She wanted to right the wrong done by Agamemnon.

In school life, the weavers of destruction are not nearly so violent and their intentions are not so plainly malignant. In fact, their weaving can often seem quite reasonable at the time. They may see their actions as honorable, even necessary. Often this destruction can come in the form of a headmaster or teacher being removed too quickly (or for the wrong reasons), disciplinary matters left untended, or a school culture that runs contrary to wisdom and virtue.

So weave as Penelope. Weave remembrance, using the loom to fend off those who would destroy. She wisely wove a tapestry that honored those she loved, that protected them, and their home. She created a tapestry that would restore Ithaka to the rightful king. To do that one must remember as she did (the purpose of education, the vocation and commission of the school), love as she did (truth, goodness, beauty, wisdom, virtue, the children and families served), and work faithfully as she did (sometimes stitching, sometimes unstitching), always with the whole tapestry in mind.

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