Undying romantic love and philosophical descriptions of hell are not normally associated with the third grade. My enduring memories are of dramatic recesses involving a tall pirate ship in the sandy playground.
Boys would climb to the top of the mast and jump off, occasionally landing awkwardly and breaking bones. The duty teacher would come rushing over to escort the victim/culprit to the office for medical treatment. Meanwhile, girls were congregated in circles on the grass playing with My Little Ponies or sticker collections.
Yet not everyone fit into these stereotypes and as it turns out there have always been exceptional people who transcended normal gender roles. Some even fell in love with passion normally reserved for adulthood. In Renaissance-era Florence one such special boy was named Dante Alighieri. His entire life’s output has been said to be tied to a girl named Beatrice whom he fell in love with when he was nine and she only eight.
Dante was born 1265 CE into a lower-aristocratic family and as such was educated more by a tutor than in what we would call a classroom. His educational apprenticeship occurred ?under the direction of Brunetto Latini? and consisted of rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, literature and theology.?
It is likely that the individualized nature of his early instruction affected his interaction with the opposite sex. Without the gang or collective mentality of childhood gender roles, he was able to see across the boy-girl divide in a way most of us never would have imagined when we were being forcibly seated boy-girl boy-girl during circle time on the kindergarten carpet.
When he met Beatrice she ?became in effect his Muse,? even to long after her death at the age of 24. Following this early encounter his educational experiences included ?some thirty months? frequenting ?the schools of the religious orders and the disputations of philosophers.? By his own account, all Dante’s subsequent experiences are filtered through his feelings for her.
Dante stated that his purpose in self-expression was to ?write of her what never yet was written on any woman.? In pursuit of this goal he became a member of the Stilnovo school of poetry. Stilnovo poets followed an Aristotelian form of logic that sought explanations in what one might term a pre-scientific method. The resulting poems were ?a deep analysis of the love feeling, even psychologically . . . a sort of love theory.?
The Stilnovo school’s analytic approach to love may seem odd to we who live in an educational world characterized by a strict ideological division between left-logical and right-expressive brains. Stilnovo was about creating an organic unity of the self expressed poetically. For students involved in the Stilnovo school method, ?the works of art must see the contents perfectly melted with the form.?
In other words, the ideas, theories, and research method of pure philosophy needed to be combined with the raw, colourful, and metaphorical aspects of pure art. The binary cleavage between ?math nerd? and ?art star? was meaningless in this context. Dante’s theme was ?the significance of his love for Beatrice? yet this love became an arbiter of more universal ideas such as the ?nature of love and human psychology.? It wasn’t just butterflies in the stomach or of the heart; it was about feeling butterflies as symbolic of divine permeations extant in all aspects of life.
Having met Beatrice, Dante found his love unrequited due to the ?dictates of courtly love,? which made her socially unattainable. In his most well-known work, La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), he is said to have expressed his disappointments and frustration at this reality. She came to ?embody the divine incarnation of love that inspired him throughout his life.? It was a mixed blessing, however, as he noted in a description of a conversation with himself following that first encounter with her: ?Now is your bliss made manifest.? ?Alas! How often henceforth shall we be troubled.?
This desire for unity and bliss translated well into religious terms. In fact, Dante came to describe and conflate his feeling for Beatrice as representative of a truly religious experience whereby God is felt through another person as an intermediary. The result of seeing his love as the outcome of divine inspiration was that the religious nature of his writing became a personal testament. To overcome the impossibility of being with Beatrice, he expressed her to himself as an aspect of the universally accessible divine: ?The Lady, exerting on her lover a power derived from the participation of her understanding in the divine . . . transmit(s) the influence of the First Mover to the universe at large.? She was God’s light shining onto his soul.
The way Dante’s educational experience intersects with his personal feelings can be explained by the sociological and philosophical concept of Pragmatism. Discussed by the theorist John Dewey, whose work included educational and psychological theory, Pragmatism involves the idea that people are ?existentially free agents who accept, reject, modify, or otherwise define the community norms, roles, beliefs, and so forth, according to their own personal interests and plans of the moment.?
Dante pragmatically used religious imagery and themes to express his heartfelt desire to be with his childhood love, Beatrice. This is interesting because so often education is expressed as learning as though the pupil is an empty chalice waiting to be filled with information. Pragmatism expresses the individual as an active agent within a world of ?dynamic processes and not static structures.?
Of course, to see structures as dynamic takes a willingness to use a sort of bionic vision. To see beyond the surface requires a disavowal of the way truths are promulgated. As a product of a religious society that was rapidly being coloured by humanist pre-Christian Greek and Roman philosophies, Dante was able to create a reality that expressed not only the truths of his time but also of how he actually felt about his life.
Pragmatism states that ?true reality does not exist out there in the real world; it is actively created as we act in and towards the world.? In this way, Dante’s Divine Comedy is a work of written expression that combines the universal with the personal, the divine with the earthly. This synthesis of elements is enabled by the application of one’s own extracurricular self to the otherwise static material at hand.
Dante’s ability to produce timeless poetry reflects his education in a personal setting, not unlike what Hollywood child actors receive today. It also is a testament to his strength to overcome adversity; not only the adversity of unrequited love but also political challenges. His family was on the losing side of a political battle in his home of Florence. The result was his later life being spent in exile. This physical exile paralleled his emotional exile from the woman he believed to be his only true love. Dante’s pragmatic solution was to manifest this feeling of alienation in terms most acceptable to his society. His experience is expressed allegorically as a journey through hell.
Dante’s The Inferno was not only about a subterranean landscape where ?corrupt politicians were immersed in boiling pitch, traitors were frozen in ice and flatterers were plunged into excrement.? The Inferno is also about Dante’s own internal struggle with himself. His inner war is perhaps most of all expressed in his treatment of the lustful, ?who merely got blown around in an endless storm.?
It is the storm of the heart that educational methods and materials least express today, just as in Renaissance Italy. Yet paradoxically it is this very turbulence that humanity’s greatest artists most clairvoyantly express.