A good education, like a good life, is about charging after truth. And the road is beset with more snares and pitfalls the more education becomes less about truth. For those who wish to win truth in both learning and in life, which requires bearing up under difficulty, there is a hero that few might think of turning to for educational inspiration when ends become frayed, crosses heavy, and purposes blunted or even broken. Don Quixote is that hero as one who can bring the drive of noble devotion to teachers or students tempted to surrender to sordid denials and obstructions.
Inspired by reading books of chivalry, Don Quixote of La Mancha dons ancient armor, mounts his gaunt nag, and gallops across the dusty plains of Castile to live out what he has loved. He rides in the name of a forgotten glory as he upholds a forgotten code of chivalry. The self-dubbed knight errant trips headlong into Renaissance Spain with grand visions of things gone out of style. He goes in quest of knights, wizards, ladies, kings, and castles, but only finds rogues, goatherds, convicts, chambermaids, and inns. Again and again, Don Quixote’s morals are denied, his manners ridiculed, and his purposes foiled. He is beaten and broken at every turning, even though he upholds honor, justice, and Catholic virtue. Such ideals and their upholders do not fit in easily in a world where the good, true, and beautiful have been relinquished.
But Don Quixote is resilient despite his sorrows, failures, and errors. Reality is reality even if the world denies or abolishes it—the good will always be good, evil still evil, and truth ever true. Don Quixote is a champion of this principle of the real, even though he is derided as a madman. As with every member of the Church Militant in the trenches of a godless age, such derision and delusion must be faced and fought. Thus, Don Quixote continues to recognize giants where the world sees only windmills and to charge them despite falls and in spite of scorn. He sees what he has taught himself to see and does what he believes by faith and reason to be right.
The quest of Don Quixote is a metaphor of the educational quest of every Christian: to unfurl the truth over false fields—even when the truth is unfashionable or uncomfortable—and to strive to bring harmony to times of discord—even if it takes some discord in doing so. Don Quixote finds a world sundered and senseless, much like the present world. He learns that the work to rebuild among the ruins is treacherous, as those who labor to restore education can confirm. Though trampled and trounced time and again, Don Quixote rides resolutely on for the unity and wisdom of bygone days as he battles through the divisions and disconnections of modernity. Would that every teacher and student could be so strong in spirit and ready to resist the libel of lunacy.
Christianity is a chivalric religion because it requires the highest of human attitudes, which is precisely how G. K. Chesterton defined chivalry. Christianity requires nobility and courage from soldiers of Christ. It requires strength and fortitude from those who serve a King. It requires a code of honor and a core of values. Christianity is a brotherhood. It is a knighthood. It is chivalric. In the words of Catholic educator John Senior from The Restoration of Christian Culture:
The Camino Real of Christ is a chivalric way, romantic, full of fire and passion, riding on the pure, high-spirited horses of the self with their glad, high-stepping knees and flaring nostrils, and us with jingling spurs and the cry “Mon joie!”—the battle cry of Roland and Oliver. Our Church is the Church of the Passion.
Though knighthood is extinct, that is no reason why chivalry should be dead. Don Quixote’s anachronistic knighthood is a call for a more traditional Catholic education when it comes to defying the world when the world is wrong and taking the risk of embracing rejected truths. This course, this straggling road of sudden perils, is the course of ancient education in a modern world. These days, Catholic teachers often and easily feel bruised and even beaten. But, like Don Quixote, they are called to carry on in the classroom, to sally forth to school undaunted, beating down discouragement and determined to be the challenger of falsehood and a champion of truth. Catholics must learn to ride even if it be in seeming vain, as Chesterton quixotically intimated in his “Lepanto,” to tilt and be toppled for the truth, even romantic truth. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,” says St. Paul, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.”
Don Quixote may see things that are not visible, but only because he does not see through a glass darkly as most do, and those who would educate or be educated should seek a similar vision. The world may be obscured by sin, the pessimism that fragments reality may be overwhelming, but an education that pursues restoration and truth and hope is a chivalric call that must be heeded. Don Quixote is a hero of Christian optimism and Christian imagination that perceives the highest reality in the lowliest realities. Don Quixote is a hero of Christian education for he is a man of great faith in a faithless land. It is only when that vision is lost, in fact, when pragmatism shakes off perfection, when dreams are replaced with dejection, that Don Quixote is conquered and tragedy sets in.
It is never foolish to fight for the greater glory of God and in defense of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. “If the world hate you, know ye, that it hath hated me before you.” Don Quixote stands, fights, falls, and gets back up serving as an allegory of the Christian condition and, thus, of Christian education. He exhorts the need to charge on, to be mocked for the sake of righteousness, to do what heaven commands even when the world condemns, to be a defender, to be principled, to be brave, to be unwavering, to be conquered again and again and, again and again, to keep rising from the dust. Nothing less is required in the perilous adventure of education, and Don Quixote should inspire teachers and students alike.
Being quixotic does not mean being quaint. It means being committed—committed to the ideals of reality, to the highest realities. It means being a lover of lofty truth and unafraid to suffer for it. Education and its devotees would only benefit from a new knighthood of quixotic champions in this dour day and age. For, though Christianity may seem insane in the context of secularism, it is the Christian chivalric worldview that makes the world make the most sense.