We need an Ithaca

'Ithaca' by C.P. Cavafy

When you set out for distant Ithaca,
fervently wish your journey may be long, —
full of adventures and with much to learn.
Of the Laestrygones and the Cyclopes,
of the angry god Poseidon, have no fear:
these you shall not encounter, if your thought
remains at all times lofty, — if select
emotion touches you in body and spirit.
Not the Laestrygones, not the Cyclopes,
nor yet the fierce Poseidon, shall you meet,
unless you carry them within your soul, —
unless your soul should raise them to confront you.

Fervently wish your journey may be long.
May they be numerous — the summer mornings
when, pleased and joyous, you will be anchoring
in harbours you have never seen before.
Stay at the populous Phoenician marts,
and make provision of good merchandise;
coral and mother of pearl; and ebony
and amber; and voluptuous perfumes
of every kind, in lavish quantity.
Sojourn in many a city of the Nile,
and from the learned learn and learn amain.

At every stage bear Ithaca in mind.
The arrival there is your appointed lot.
But hurry not the voyage in the least:
’twere better if you travelled many years
and reached your island home in your old age,
being rich in riches gathered on the way,
and not expecting more from Ithaca.

Ithaca gave you the delightful voyage:
without her you would never have set out:
and she has nothing else to give you now.

And though you should find her wanting, Ithaca
will not surprise you; for you will arrive
wise and experienced, having long since perceived
the unapparent sense in Ithacas.

We want learning to be an open experience with all of the serendipity and unforeseen moments -- but we need an Ithaca. There needs to be a goal, and objective, even if the most important stuff that happens isn't the objective, but the stuff that happens along the way. We need to be headed somewhere, moving toward something, and then we need to have the chance to pick up what happens because of that progress, however slow, expecting little from the actual completion of the objective.

One thing I like a lot about the IB MYP is the way it understands the value of an Ithaca for a course. The objectives are central to the program, and at least in the courses I teach, they are broad and varied enough to allow lots of sojourns, lots of good merchandise. But they are specific and challenging enough to keep us moving.

This is the poem with which I start my IB Diploma classes. I say, yes, we have big exams and formal assessments, and those exams and assessments will produce scores that will allow you to go to university somewhere. But that's not really the point. The point is the stuff that happens as you produce the work and prepare for exams. The final product is not a score -- it's a student.

My role as a teacher is to keep us moving but also know when to linger, keep eyes on the prize but also encourage reflection on the process. And I do fervently wish that our journey will be long -- not in actual time, but in the opportunities for wisdom and experience that are the real stuff of learning.