The first day of school is coming. I have a confession to make: I didn’t like school. I was a daydreamer, looker-out-the-window, cloud watcher, doodler, picture-maker (my third grade teacher tore up the best airplane I ever drew) and occasional nose picker. Why do we spend so much time cooped up in classrooms? There’s a wide and wonderful world out there! Instead of school, why not hike the Rockies? Check out the Big Apple? Go fishing in Alaska? Have some good eats in Paris? Hang out at a museum? Take in a concert? Watch a play? Anywhere but a classroom! There I go again. Daydreaming, like Huck Finn and his balloon rides. Nonetheless, we must admit that education isn’t automatically for the best. We can blow the world up many times over, thanks to education. But education has its rewards, for everyone, if we do right and use it well. Human development calls for education. So, what do we do? Here’s a thought.
Let Them be Born in Wonder
(Written in 2015, Rewritten in 2017, Rewritten again in 2018)
A magazine ad by the Canadian Tourism Commission featured a father and son standing on a rock overlooking Lake Huron. The father’s finger pointed outward, guiding the boy’s attention to the lake’s sapphire horizon. That’s an icon of education. Learning begins with trust and respect for a master who has proven him/herself worthy of trust and respect. A good teacher can awaken the disciple to boundless new worlds of wonder and learning. The teacher helps the little disciple experience the joy of discovery. With guidance, the disciple begins to feel the wonder and affections that are appropriate to each thing in Creation and Civilization. Cultivating healthy affections is prerequisite to moral formation, which should be prerequisite to formal education. In this way, a young person learns to approach the world — and therefore how to think about it — with due reverence and respect. A child must learn to perceive before he or she learns to think. Healthy affections precede healthy thoughts.
Education does not begin with books. It begins with noticing things, which comes naturally to youth. Youth are naturally observant. Noticing entails experiencing wonder. It doesn’t matter if we know “what it is” – at first. Nobody knows what anything is, at first. But if “whatever it is” evokes wonder, then we’ll want to know “what it is” and “all about it.” When we want to know, reading and writing become worthwhile endeavors. But education must first begin with the wonder of perceiving things outside of ourselves.
Wonder evokes empathy. Empathy is feeling about something/someone in the way that it/he/she deserves. Feeling a sense of majesty or awe when seeing a mountain, or feeling a sense of tenderness or delicacy when seeing a flower, is empathy. Feeling pity for a poor person, or subtle joy at a graceful dance, is empathy. Empathy begets gratitude. It makes us grateful for the gift that something/someone is – for us. This isn’t just sentimentality. It’s a sense of reality. Empathy begets a sense of justice, by which the principles of justice become a virtue. That said, the deep root of empathy – i.e. feelings in touch with reality – is wonder, which can only come from first-hand experience. Wonder and empathy are not just subjective “feelings.” They are experiences – encounters – with reality outside of one’s self, in relation to one’s self. If we get this, then we get the foundations of an excellent education. Nascantur in admiratione. “Let them be born in wonder.”
“The fundamental elements of knowledge spring from the wonder awakened in them by the contemplation of creation: human beings are astonished to discover themselves as part of the world, in a relationship with others like them, all sharing a common destiny. Here begins, then, the journey which will lead them to discover ever new frontiers of knowledge. Without wonder, men and women would lapse into deadening routine and little by little would become incapable of a life which is genuinely personal” (St. John Paul II, Faith and Reason, 4).
An old schoolmaster once said: “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wonder. Philosophy begins in wonder and ends in wisdom.” In his book The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis said that humans must first feel the proper affection due to each thing, according to its place in the universe, before exploring it. Waterfalls are sublime. Mountains are majestic. Flowers are pretty. Children are delightful. Old people are venerable. Mass is solemn. We must learn to feel these ways about these things before we can begin to study and understand them.
Education begins with perceiving and then contemplating — after which we have something to think about. I saw an airport ad for a university that said, “We don’t teach you what to think, but how to think.” That doesn’t make sense. No one can teach you either what or how to think about anything. No teacher has ever taught anyone “how” to think, or could ever do so. A good teacher points things out, like the dad in the Canadian ad. A good teacher might demonstrate a logical process, like math or experimentation, or how to make something. But these “hows” are innate in mankind, like walking or swimming, so the teacher merely imparts the knowledge that awakens the “how.” It’s up to the student to do the thinking. A good lesson in logic, syllogisms, grammar or critical thinking is helpful only after a student (1) has something they want to think about and (2) has tried thinking for his/herself. It would be foolish to try to teach music to someone who’s never listened to or wondered about music. Likewise with thinking.
The heart must be formed before the head. Education that skips over the heart and goes to the head can be (1) at least vapid or (2) at worst dangerous. In a sense, we must experience living rooms before classrooms. No formal education, no matter what it tries to teach, can replace the natural, free and leisurely experience of discovery on a happy Sunday afternoon, in the backyard, in a park, by a fireplace, on hike, in a toolshed, fishing, playing with frogs, or playing in the mud. No school program can replace the natural and free experience of delight and wonder that can only be experienced within the free atmosphere of play. Education begins with delight, which leads to wonder, which ends in wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge formed by love.
To be sure, education is not primarily about how to “do things” or “think critically.” A person who only learns how to “do things” will be a master of performing tasks, but not of how to live. A person who learns only how to “think critically” will become disputatious. While it’s important to set high standards, we ought not to stress out the young over getting perfect grades or percentiles. "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul” (Mark 8:36)? We should all ask these questions: What kind of life do we want to prepare our children for? What will matter to them in thirty years from now? Forty and fifty years from now? At death? What kind of life holds the best prospects for happiness? How do we teach good judgment, justice, honor, courage, chastity, self control, generosity, perseverance, kindness, gentleness and charity? Good manners? How do we pass on an appreciation of beauty? Elegance in self-expression? Christian morals? How do we prepare them for Eternal Life?
Set before your children the banquet of Faith and Reason, of Truth and Beauty, of Creation and Creator, of Art and Science, of Virtue and Grace, of Christ and his Church. You can start them off with anything from worms to seashells — and let them freely experience the wonder that opens the mind to God. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “In a certain sense, anything can lead to Everything.” This sense of wonder comes intimately to children after they have received Holy Communion at Sunday Mass. After Communion, a child or adolescent may be inclined to stare in blessed contemplation and wonder at the natural world on a leisurely Sunday afternoon, when no demands are made, no expectations imposed. Holy Communion can take a child to heaven – if only for a few minutes – during a free moment, especially if he or she is alone with nature for a little while. You might say, they’re “born again.” We all need Sunday. It’s the most important Day in our education.
The celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship "as a sign of his universal beneficence to all” (St. Thomas Aquinas). Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2176).
Just as God "rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done” (Genesis 2:2), human life has a rhythm of work and rest. The institution of the Lord's Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2184).
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor