Circe and STEM


“I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”

Glenn Holland, in Mr. Holland’s Opus

Just when I thought the Greek Gods and perhaps mythology itself had run its course, a woman steps in to help me re-imagine the legend of Odysseus yet again. Madeline Miller quickly surprised me by sweeping me up into the story of a greek goddess who had been little more than a footnote in the epic mythological tale of Odysseus, the template for the hero’s journey. In this story Miller crafted a compelling allegory for the feminine hero’s journey in the Goddess Circe. Miller shows us the father/daughter struggle between protection and freedom, the mother/son struggle between holding on and letting go, the feminine struggle for power and safety.

Miller led me into a world of Greek mythology both real and mythological. She painted believable relationships between gods and mortals. She balanced the worlds of Gods and mortals in a way that invited me to be present there. I felt acutely the pain of Deadalus losing his son Icarus because he did not warn him against flying to close to the sun. I felt horror at the conception and birth of the Minotaur. I felt rage and defiance as the Gods played out their drama without regard for mortal consequences. I felt empowered as Circe cast her spells for protection. I felt sisterhood as I watched her grow in wisdom through the heartache of making impossible choices.

In short, I reawakened to the wisdom of Greek mythology. Circe’s experiences with family, with exile, with motherhood, helped me to reflect on my own experiences and choices. I found, in Circe, a woman to relate to, in all of her splendor and failure. As a goddess, she may have known the unthinkable gift of immortality, but she knew the curse of it as well.

And immediately closing the back cover of the book, I felt sad about the potential loss of these myths as part of our children’s academic training. I thought of the school system’s popular STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) program and our culture’s near obsession with grooming young people toward careers in those fields. I thought of the first programs to be sacrificed under the chopping blocks of budget cuts, the arts, communication and humanities. When I ask my own children if they know who Odysseus was and the story of the Iliad, they have a vague recollection of the classic titles. Scant knowledge of the stories or their meaning.

And yet, our children will not be scared off from mythology. I grieve that they will not find it in their schools. But I have hope that they embrace stories of their own gods and godesses. They find them in popular culture. The cult following of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and more recently Game of Thrones, shows me how thirsty our children are for stories and archetypes to understand their world. Stories that invite them to see the true experience of humanity within themselves by watching it play out in characters in books and on the screen.

What they lose in this math/science/tech emphasis, unfortunately, is the wisdom of teachers who help them interpret the stories. Our educational system tells them that stories are not an important part of their life. That all they need to know to understand living can be found in the study of science, technology, engineering, math. How will our children learn to feel? And how will they learn to befriend their own experience as common among humanity? How will they learn to experience love, and loss, victory and failure, creation and destruction? Myth and story are the age old tools for that type of exploration toward wisdom. Communication and literacy are the avenues through which these truths are shared.

Our children will not allow us to rob them of their mythology. But neither will they have the wisdom good teachers could bring to the process of understanding themselves in the world.