Course Profile: Greatness and the Hero’s Journey

The Monkey King, from Journey to the West, Wu Cheng'en, 16th century

Students in Linda Aldrich’s section of Thinking and Writing learn that the story of a hero’s journey has appeared in every culture on earth for thousands of years. Though the characters and the costumes change, the essential elements of the journey persist within the stages of departure, initiation, and return. Joseph Campbell, the foremost scholar of world mythology, uses the word “monomyth” to describe this “one, shapeshifting yet marvelously constant story” (1). Students read The Hero with a Thousand Faces and discuss the insights this myth offers us about what constitutes a balanced, whole and harmonious life. A truly empowered male or female, according to Campbell, is one who goes through “the desired and feared” journey to the self and emerges as  “a wonderful reconstruction, of the bolder, cleaner, more spacious, and fully human life”(5). Linda introduces students to the journeys of heroes in ancient myths, in contemporary films like Good Will Hunting, The Piano, Frozen River, and in the lives of real people, including Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.

Yamato-takeru, Japanese warrior hero from the Kojiki and Nihongi

From such a journey, great leaders are made. But as Linda leads her students to see, the hero’s journey is both an outer adventure as well as an inner, psychological quest. The fire-breathing dragons and the annihilating ogres represent aspects of our psyche that hold us back and keep us in a state of constricted consciousness, thereby sabotaging our journeys to greatness. “The Hero’s Journey” asks students to consider the ways individuals and entire cultures are stopped from achieving better, more balanced lives. Students write about physical and psychological challenges of all kinds, including low self-esteem, child abuse, dysfunctional family relationships, addictions, mental disorders, multiple sclerosis, and dysfluent speech (stuttering); they argue for better diagnoses/treatments, more research money, more awareness and compassion; they research shamanic journeys and initiation rites in world cultures in arguing for the continued viability of indigenous practices; and they argue for creating social and environmental laws that might allow for a more just and healthy world.

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