Schools now attempt to produce students who will contribute to the workforce and, really, nothing more. Students are now frequently viewed as tools for the end of GDP; this demeaning use of a person shows that a pragmatic notion of education entirely misses the mark.

Birth to school. School to college. College to job. Job to retirement. Retirement to death. Rinse and repeat.

We live in a time and a country that is truly dedicated to that which is practical. There must always be a reason for what one does. Unfortunately, the reason is not inclusive. It must be reduced to a positive result, one that is physical, measurable, and obtainable (rather than attainable). Any and all effort must produce a physical product.

Here we have no new news. Before our time, Tocqueville commented on the unique degree of American pragmatism and industry. However, he did not witness unbridled industrialization and its poisoned fruits, namely industrialized education. Schools now attempt to produce students who will contribute to the workforce and, really, nothing more. Students are now frequently viewed as tools for the end of GDP; this demeaning use of a person shows that a pragmatic notion of education entirely misses the mark. Students—as people and, therefore, unique creations of God—have intrinsic worth and should not be reduced to an economic machine. The question on everyone’s mind should not be, “How will this help me in the future?”—which, if not directly stated, actually means, “How will this help me get and keep a job?”

As a classical educator, I attempt both to seek the Good, True, and Beautiful and to help my students in their search for these transcendentals. Although subjects that ostensibly make one more marketable at a job, such as math and science, can be worthy human endeavors, they do not encompass humans as a whole; they cannot replace the humanities. Math and science—as they are currently being taught—can build knowledge in their domain, but they can do no more. They cannot contribute to one’s morality save seeing generic order in the cosmos; we must seek another study for the instruction of virtue. For this purpose, we may make use of the humanities—such as history and literature—to build the moral imagination in ourselves and in our students. We cannot, however, continue to teach literature solely as a subjective tool to discover one’s feelings, nor can we teach history as mere information. We should, for starters, use the humanities to experience difficulties beforehand and to act accordingly when comparable difficulties actually do come, for inevitably they do come. In other words, to grow in humanity.

Rather than the former question, I propose another one, one which is by no means new: “How can studying this help me to become a better human?” The answer to which should never be, “To get me a job.” For, although we are indeed instructed to work, what’s more is that we are commanded to work well. This is to say that work, which is necessary and beneficial to our souls, can only prove beneficial when done in the right spirit. Modern American education as it is cannot provide that spirit. Modernity even reduces work to only that which is physical.

Here I propose turning to Norse myth to build our moral imagination by contemplating the downfall of one who disregards forming another’s moral imagination. In Padraic Colum’s exceptional retelling of The Children of Odin, the eponymous god learns the results of a purely pragmatic education, one that ignores the moral imagination and instead focuses on a product. In the story “Odin Faces an Evil Man,” Colum puts a distinctly classical humanist lens on the myth by showing a strong hero built not by physical sweat and toil, but by imperceptible growth in wisdom via stories.[1] His version of the events goes thus:

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To prepare mankind for Ragnarok, the last battle against the evil giants, Odin and his wife, Frigga, take on the forms of lowly peasants in order to live among men and teach them. One day, the divine couple sees two brothers out fishing. They are the sons of King Hrauding and would make good candidates for heroes. The brothers then encounter a storm and are forced upon the shore of the island on which the disguised gods dwell. They must sojourn on the island due to the upcoming winter, which would make the northern waters too cold to traverse.

Now, Odin and Frigga have chosen their favorites. Each will raise their chosen child in hopes of training the noblest hero. Odin takes the younger, Geirrod, under his care and has him perform feats of strength, such as jumping chasms, climbing mountains, and fighting bears. Frigga, on the other hand, stays indoors at the spinning wheel, telling the older brother, Agnar, stories of the gods.

The winter passes, and all bid adieu to one another. Odin speaks with Geirrod, saying that he will visit his kingdom one day and that he should not be too proud to receive one so lowly into his home. (Odin, like Zeus, is a god of xenia.) Geirrod then laments that he may not welcome Odin into his hall, for it will not be his hall—Agnar is eldest and, therefore, the next king. Agnar, however, is not given advice at the point of his departure, but he uses his farewell to make his intentions clear: he will strive to fight for the gods.

The brothers enter their boat to return home, but only one of them arrives at their father’s kingdom. Geirrod, desiring inordinately to be king, jumps from the boat with the oars, swims to shore, and climbs the cliffs to his father’s hall—all accomplished through his superior strength—thus leaving his brother, Agnar, to die. Geirrod is received warmly after telling his father that Agnar was lost to the sea, and then becomes the next king after his father’s death.

Years later, after Odin has earned wisdom from Mimir’s Well, he roams Asgard as Vegtam the Wanderer, judging man and preparing them for Ragnarok. Upon visiting Geirrod’s kingdom, he is almost knocked over by the king while he rushes past on horseback. The king and his accompanying men tell him and the servant at the stable to help them dismount, and Geirrod’s royal train proceeds to the castle. Odin begins to speak with the servant at the stable, Agnar, who has survived his ordeal and has disguised himself in order to work for his brother. Agnar offers Odin food and a place to stay, saying that he should go no further and should avoid visiting the unwelcoming king. Despite the warning, Odin continues onward.

The king and his men see the wanderer enter the hall and call for him to sing for their entertainment. Odin does so, but it is a song rebuking this “king over robbers.” In a fury, Geirrod has Odin bound to the pillars and set ablaze, but this does not affect the god. This practice is continued for eight nights, the king all the while refusing to let his servants feed his prisoner. However, Odin is fed and given drink by Agnar, who enters secretly every night to assist the disguised god.

On the ninth night, Odin waits no longer. He breaks from his bonds and sings one last song for the king, revealing his godhood and transforming Geirrod and his men into wolves as punishment for their wrongdoing. He then makes Agnar, the stable boy, king.

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In the story, Colum draws out the effects of a purely pragmatic education. It would, however, be incorrect to say that Geirrod’s shortcomings are a result of his training in strength. Colum tells us that Agnar is strong as well—albeit to a lesser degree. Strength is not the issue; rather, it is what his education lacks that is problematic. Odin’s focus on strength is to the detriment of all other discipline, which is reminiscent of what St. Paul tells Timothy in his letter, saying that “bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” (AKJV, I Tim. 4:8) Here, St. Paul warns of the limited use of worldly pursuits when attempting the higher pursuits that lead one to God. “Godliness,” which we may identify as the soul’s increase in virtues, assists in this pursuit and is not limited to benefitting this life—as is the case with bodily prowess—but also the next.

Geirrod’s education focuses on the body and forgoes the soul. In this way, only one part of Geirrod’s humanity is explicitly trained and for solely one purpose—fighting. His soul is ignored. Now, perhaps he develops courage (it seems that fighting bears generally has this effect); however, his boundless courage lacks proper direction as he lacks justice, temperance, and wisdom. His injustice is most notable when he usurps the king, his own brother, who by rights is the successor to the throne. He displays no duty towards his family—the building block of civilization, according to Cicero—by this action of disloyalty and, further, by his lie to his father, saying that Agnar had fallen out of the boat.

Geirrod’s disloyalty extends to the whole of his people, to whom he, as king, justly owes loyalty. His disloyalty not only shows injustice, but the way in which he has chosen to abuse his position also shows his intemperance. He has become a thief and unremorsefully went daily on his raids. His excessive love of money manifested itself in the oppression of his people. Colum does not explicitly relate whom Geirrod robs; however, being that his people are oppressed and that he is able to make his daily robberies and return the same day (indicating that he had shorter journeys to make), it is reasonable to assume that Geirrod takes from his own people in a Sheriff of Nottingham-esque way. Ultimately, his disordered love of money over his people is wolf-like, which makes his literal transformation into a wolf by Odin a fitting punishment.

Colum indicates that Geirrod’s lack of wisdom is the source of his other deficiencies. He shows his lack of wisdom by disregarding that which is true. When Odin sings a song of rebuke for the robber king, he becomes immoderately angry and attempts to punish the disguised god. In this way, the search for truth is unappealing to the usurper, perhaps because he has not been habituated to seeking it as a child. Truth had not been presented as something pleasant or precious. He does not now know himself and will not attempt to know the gods. Geirrod’s gravest weakness, however, is Agnar’s greatest strength.

Agnar, unlike his younger brother, displays all four virtues, but they are all derived from his wisdom. He was raised on the stories of the gods; he heard the truth and decided to seek it and to live in accordance with it. Knowing that the gods are preparing for Ragnarok, Agnar tells Frigga that he “would strive to learn how he might fight the battle for the Gods.” Not only is he showing an ascent to the truth of the gods and wisdom in continuing to learn this truth and his part in it, but he also shows justice in his attempt to give to the gods what they are owed, his service. He later shows temperance in living as a stable boy—he does not need the riches of the king nor the glory. It seems that he has attempted to find a place in the kingdom, neither attempting to find vengeance on his brother nor being too cowardly to usurp the false king. In fact, it is clear that cowardice is not a contributing factor in his remaining in the stable because he is able to show courage when feeding Odin, Geirrod’s unjustly-imprisoned captive. But best of all, Agnar shows a theological virtue after his initial steps towards wisdom. He shows charity. He feeds and houses the wanderer and gives his brother the benefit of the doubt, saying that the king was angry today, although—being that he was angry for the next eight—it seems that he was always in an ill temper.

The fact that Agnar knew the truth does not necessitate his following it. His will was to follow the truth, and he did such. The story could have gone differently. He may have known the truth and have chosen not to act in accordance with it. However, his was a better start than Geirrod’s, who had hardly a chance to follow the truth as he did not know it. Furthermore, Geirrod’s will was not to seek the truth, making any introduction of truth ostensibly futile. He was given an opportunity to hear and follow the truth later and did not take it—he is no victim as, although it was not his fault that he was not raised seeking truth, it was his responsibility to change. Even so, what if he would have been given the truth earlier? Would he have been able to form the necessary habits and appreciation? Aslan’s sage answer to Lucy seems an appropriate answer: “ ‘To know what would have happened, child? . . . No. Nobody is ever told that . . . But anyone can find out what will happen.’ ”[2] Geirrod has been trained and has made his choice, but there are other students who now need to be educated.

Comparably, it is a school’s task to help guide students toward truth in order to give them the best opportunity to continue seeking and following it. Of course, students can choose to ignore instruction or trample over the truth to follow their own passions, but they will at least be aware of its presence and may one day choose to return to it, having once established the prerequisite habits. The majority of public schools, however, do not begin from proper first principles. They emphasize no truth but only skills to obtain jobs and wealth, and unfortunately—unless one is knocked off his horse and redirected—these wealth-hungry students will have no moral mooring on which to base their actions. Too often schools aim to produce kings of robbers and wolves rather than virtuous stable boys.

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Notes:

[1] Padraic Colum, “Odin Faces An Evil Man,” in The Children of Odin: The Book of Northern Myths (Project Gutenberg, 2008): 82-89.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 2000): 142.

The featured image is an illustration of Agnar bringing food to Odin, who is tied to a pillar (1908), by George Wright (1872-1951), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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