In Louisa May Alcott’s famous book Little Women, we follow the March family of four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The March family has a rigorous philosophy of life that includes an emphasis on education and self-improvement. At Christmastime, the girls are grieving because their father is away serving during the Civil War. To help them, their mother proposes a guiding idea. They are to imitate the journey of Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress:
Mrs. March broke the silence that followed Jo’s words, by saying in her cheery voice, “Do you remember how you used to play Pilgrim’s Progress when you were little things? Nothing delighted you more than to have me tie my piece bags on your backs for burdens, give you hats and sticks and rolls of paper, and let you travel through the house from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City.”
“What fun it was, especially going by the lions, fighting Apollyon, and passing through the valley where the hob-goblins were,” said Jo.
“I liked the place where the bundles fell off and tumbled downstairs,” said Meg.
“I don’t remember much about it, except that I was afraid of the cellar and the dark entry, and always liked the cake and milk we had up at the top. If I wasn’t too old for such things, I’d rather like to play it over again,” said Amy, who began to talk of renouncing childish things at the mature age of twelve.
“We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before Father comes home.”
This classic tale becomes the structure of the book as we follow each sister’s journey and attempt to learn wisdom and seek goodness. Education should do for us what Mrs. March’s idea does for her daughters—provide a framework by which we interpret our lives. Education is not only about facts and skills. It is about learning how to think about the world. Though I am primarily an English teacher, I believe each of the academic disciplines has much to teach us.
Though we’ve forgotten the classes and phylum of the animal kingdom, we learned that there is an order to life on this planet. In animals and plants, we observe similar and dissimilar characteristics from color to food preference that denote belonging. These details are revealed only to the patient, for science teaches us to really see—the iridescent artwork on the beetle’s exoskeleton, the thin veins mapped throughout a leaf or the events in a process that bring water tumbling from the sky. Science awakens wonder in us. The faithful pupil observes a universe of marvels from the tiny quarks to the supergiant stars that can be 1500 times larger than the sun. The extravagance of this world is a gift given to us every day; however, it is not one that is always enjoyed. Giglio quotes in his book Indescribable “As Paul Hawken keenly observed, Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course.… We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.” Science reminds us what we have been given.
Math, the dreaded subject, teaches us about consequences, logic, and balance. This is best demonstrated in the often-infuriating equation. Often dubbed the universal language, math communicates facts in the most succinct manner possible. Andy Walsh, the author of Faith Across the Multiverse, compares equations to information-dense poems. He explains that “seeing an equation as a poem helps us appreciate the true genius behind it. It’s not the ability to do complex calculations or knowing the Greek alphabet. It is seeing the relationships between two quantities (or more) in a way that no one else has seen them before and expressing that relationship clearly and precisely.” This ability has real-world implications. Walsh then explains how the movie The Martian showcases how equations enable the main character to survive his time stranded on Mars and make possible his eventful rescue. Math is the language of precision and opportunity.
More than likely, we have already forgotten 90% of the dates and names we memorized in history. Learning it all may seem like a waste of time. However, history’s value is its ability to humble us. It reminds us that we are one tiny story among millions. So many have come before us who are smarter and more talented than we are and are yet forgotten. Still, history can also puff us up when we observe how individuals did change the course of history. We have no idea the real effect our lives will have. Most importantly, history helps us understand our own times. The actions and philosophies of those before us have helped create the world we live in now. As Martin Luther King Jr. wisely observed, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
Finally, no education is complete without literature. Literature is the first place where we take those tools and build meaning. Stories of courage, loyalty, love and even bad decisions take the facts and give them wheels and roots and wings. Stories teach us how to live.
It is here that we develop the skills for evaluating ourselves and others. Setting teaches us how the time and place affects the moment. Character development reminds us how we can or should change. Conflict and its resolution are the drive behind every story and a reminder of the larger problem of life with which we contend. Karen Swallow Prior, professor of literature, notes in Booked that “the more I thought about it, the more I realized that reading—that is, really reading, interpreting—literature is practice for reading and interpreting life. The more one practices, the better one gets.”
Stories provide an overarching theme for life. For the March sisters, the idea of a difficult journey leading to a beautiful destination fortified them and helped them press onward through the difficulties of life. The knowledge of the world through math and science can help us function, but the story of life and those behind us tells us how and why which is needed to survive the challenges in life.
Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning explains that “as a professor in two fields, neurology and psychiatry, I am fully aware of the extent to which man is subject to biological, psychological and sociological conditions. But in addition to being a professor in two fields I am a survivor of four camps – concentration camps, that is – and as such, I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable.” How are men able to survive the horrid conditions of concentration camps? He states an important truth: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” In other words, man needs meaning in order to live. This is a gift that good literature gives us.
An Educational Journey
A true education teaches us the facts but also helps us develop a framework to interpret the facts. And, as Mrs. March so helpfully points out,
“We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City.”
This path of education does not cease with proffered diplomas or degrees but lasts the whole journey home. A life filled with observing wonder, succinct mathematical communication, and soul-inspiring meaning is a life of true success that will prepare us for the Father’s return and our homecoming.