Education as Adventure

The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval (also known as The Achievement of the Grail or The Achievement of Sir Galahad, accompanied by Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval).

“This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained—well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.”

— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Education is an adventure. As a metaphorical truism, the image has worn thin. In discourse as in the market, Gresham’s law holds true: bad money drives out good. But if we wave it off as tired hyperbole, we miss the fact that it is not a metaphor at all.

Our term “adventure” grows from the romance narratives of medieval France, but the concept goes back further. Whatever we call it, though, an adventure is not, from the inside, a picturesque fantasy, but the willing acceptance of a perilous task without any assurance of its outcome. Its end is uncertain and its dangers are real. It may cost little in a material sense, but in it one hazards oneself. It is in that respect heroic. Heroism requires risk: the Greeks understood that their immortal gods could never be heroes — they could not hazard themselves essentially for the prize. Mortals, though, can, and the prize is the only one worth contending for, call it what you will: enlightenment, self-knowledge, or simply truth. In the language of the Gospel, the Way, the Truth, and the Life are one. 

Education is the quest for that truth. Like the Grail knight’s foray into the uncharted wood, it is not a guided tour, a safe and orderly parade through a series of subjects, yielding a commemorative selfie at each station to be posted on a transcript. The real adventure doesn’t depend upon its setting, and it isn’t undertaken for show. It demands nothing at the outset but willingness; in the end, it will claim everything. It requires the reckless investment of oneself entire, and can promise only death, whether metaphorical or literal. It encompasses those little deaths that mark the losses in our ongoing lives; it also it lights our way to our inevitable mortal end. The only justification for such extravagance is that it is the quest for the truth — the Pearl of Great Price, for which we willingly give up everything we have and are.

The truth, like Aslan, is not tame. It does not exist for our benefit, it will not be cajoled, and it cannot be bent to our convenience. The quest for it may be sparked by some initial vision, but that vision will mutate along the way precisely because it is not something we make or control. Not once, but repeatedly, we will find that what we thought we were seeking was not our true goal after all.

The quest for truth, therefore, is the domain of perpetual surprise, and that, as much as anything, distinguishes true education from mere training. In Finite and Infinite Games (1986), James P. Carse suggestively notes (§17):

To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.

Education discovers an increasing richness in the past, because it sees what is unfinished there. Training regards the past as finished and the future as to be finished. Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.

Both education and training have value, and each can in the event contribute to the other. Training lets us manage the known things of the world more effectively. I want my surgeon to have been trained in his art, and I want every driver who shares the highway to have learned the rules of the road. A child is trained to tie shoes and do a thousand other basic things in order to get along in the world.

But in the world there are — especially from our subjective positions — far more unknown things than known. The trainee seeks to learn what others know, often without regard for its essential truth; the adventurer seeks to learn the heart of truth, whether anyone else knows it or not. Like the infant born into a world of phenomena with no interpretive key, or the traveler in a foreign land who doesn’t understand even the language, the adventuring student is alive to the fact that everything and anything may be significant, and hence must take it all in the spirit of humility and wonder, to see what will emerge.

When in such spirit of adventure we look at history, we do so not to predict the future or to judge other people. That’s not our job: understanding is. We submit ourselves to the experience and see ourselves in others — our truest way of knowing ourselves. We can be surprised by strangeness we never imagined, and we can equally be shocked by recognizing similarities we never expected. 

When in such spirit of adventure we do a science laboratory project, it’s not just in order to get a pre-established “right” result. That is at most a demonstration, and while it can provide valid training in lab technique, it’s not an experiment, which is about questioning the unknown (whether unknown to everyone or just to us is secondary). Science seeks out the unexpected; it should follow the results wherever they lead. 

When in such spirit of adventure we read literature, it is in the expectation that a new perspective through another’s eyes will offer new ways — by definition unforeseen — of interpreting the world and our own experiences. We set the narratives we have of our own lives against others and compare them.  

And so the adventure metaphor proves less a metaphor than a bald actuality. There is no safe education: an education that does not entail risk is no education at all. The questing knight who enters the forest may or may not find what he sought, but he will lose something, and will never emerge unchanged. Likewise real students risk their most cherished narratives about the world and about themselves. Some they may keep; some they may lose. What they find if they pursue the adventure honestly and faithfully…well, that you will see, only if you accept the challenge.

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