Wonder

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One Thing Necessary

            What follows is a reprise of my presentation at our annual Headmaster’s Dinner, held on Saturday, October 13, at the Friday Center. We viewed several video clips, took audience input from table discussions, and conversed with a panel of teachers and parents as part of the evening. This reprise, therefore, is just a slice of the message.

            I want to talk about one thing that is necessary for a good education.
            It is not the only thing that is necessary for a good education. If this thing I want to talk about is the only thing, then it’s not enough.
            But it is, I think, a necessary thing. I think you can have an education without it, but that education will be far less than what it could be. If any of us walked into a school where this one thing was present, we would say deep down inside, “I want that for my children.” 


            This one thing is evoked by a scene from the movie The Shawshank Redemption.  



Inmate Andy Dufresne, who has been writing the state legislature for six years requesting resources for the prison library where he works, is opening up one of the boxes that has at long last arrived in answer to his requests. It is a box of record albums, and one of them is a recording of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Andy turns on an aria, locks himself in the library, turns on the prison PA system, and broadcasts the music throughout the entire prison. Until Andy is apprehended by the warden, he and the other prisoners enjoy brief moments of rhapsody and awe, as the film shows in powerful ways. Andy’s friend, Red, makes this comment in the voiceover:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.
            What I see in this scene is wonder. And I submit that the cultivation of wonder is one thing that is necessary to a really good education, certainly to any education we would call “great” or “excellent.” I fear that a sense of wonder is too often lost in schools, especially in an educational climate that is governed by fear. It has always been our purpose and our hope that Trinity would be a place where such wonder is planted and nurtured. 
            What is wonder?
            It is more than curiosity. A flower may be dissected by curiosity, divided into pistil, stamen, stem, and petals. Curiosity might be the itch to take something apart; wonder is the desire to gaze on things as they are. Our curiosity may lead us to dominate nature; our wonder leads us to gaze at her, guard her, paint her. If we start with mere curiosity, we may never get to wonder. If we start with wonder, curiosity will find its proper place. Charlotte Mason’s nature studies are the perfect beginning for a life of wonder. 
      In his important book, Poetic Knowledge, James Taylor explores
this difference with a hypothetical classroom conversation. Imagine, say, a fifth
grade classroom. 

Child: Why is it raining here but there’s snow on the mountain?

Teacher: Because it’s colder higher up and the moisture is snow up there and rain down here where it’s warmer.

Child: That doesn’t make sense. When you go up higher you get closer to the sun. It should be hotter.
Adult: Option A: Well, the air is thinner higher up, so things don’t get as warm.
           Option B: Yes, if you go close enough to the sun, you’ll burn up. Do you remember the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun? What happened to him? Also, when we climb very high mountains, I wonder if we might need more air to breathe. Why would that be? And I wonder if it’s easier to get sunburned up high.
Here we see that our teacher has a choice: he can be the Answer Man, or he can cultivate a deep curiosity and even wonder at the world we inhabit by asking really good questions. I love the Godly Play curriculum and pedagogy for teaching students the stories of Scripture. They are full of wondering questions. “I wonder . . . “ is a classic Godly Play line.
video
            And of course another element in wonder, which is not fully formed in curiosity, is love. The knowledge that seeks to dominate and control is a form of power. The knowledge that wonders is a form of love. And we who follow Jesus Christ know that love is better than power. Or, to be more subtle, love is life-giving power. At Trinity we talk about a lifelong love of learning. That’s become a cliché in education, but we are in absolute earnest about it. We really do want students to love learning. And not just in Kindergarten, but also when they are seniors and busy with college applications and many pressures. 
            Wonder also is the appropriate response to beauty. It may be the only appropriate response to beauty. We talk about Truth, Goodness, and Beauty at Trinity—it’s our motto, in fact. Beauty is the most elusive of those three, and the most humble. She will never assert herself or insist on her own way. And so it is easy, too easy, to ignore her. It is easy for schools to shrink their art departments and think they can still get the essential job done. But not the job of delivering a truly excellent education. For that, wonder at the beautiful is essential. 
            Remember Red’s comment in the scene from The Shawshank Redemption? Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro evoked this sense of wonder from the entire prison. There is a lot there: Wonder goes beyond words, transcends language (“some things are best left unsaid”). Wonder at the beautiful reminds us that this world is not our home (the “ache”) and hints that there is a world (the “dream”) where our heart’s desire is filled full. And wonder at the beautiful has the capacity to make us free. I love the irony in the film when the guard threatens Andy, “You’re mine now,” and Andy just smiles (it’s not a wicked smile, but a smile of love, I think) and turns up the volume. It would seem that Andy thinks that wonder at the beautiful is worth suffering for. I wonder what we would suffer for?
            Here are some questions, some “wonderings” about our education here at Trinity:
o   Where have we seen this sense of wonder at Trinity School?
o   The sort of persons we hire as teachers has a big impact on the cultivation of wonder. What is it about Trinity teachers that does this?
o   How can teachers put in front of our students content that is worthy of their admiration and wonder?
o   What sorts of activities at home encourage a sense of wonder? What deadens it?
o   How can we teachers keep from inserting ourselves too much between the students and the objects worthy of their learning?
o   Are our students engaging in serious learning for intrinsic reasons—are they, for instance, reading for pleasure? What can parents and the school do to encourage and sustain this?
o   How are the technologies we use nurturing this sense of wonder? How can these technologies stultify it? What can we do to promote the best use of these?
I will close with a story from Luke’s Gospel, one that makes me think about wonder:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
   “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Mary reminds me of Andy Dufresne from Shawshank. Both seem insanely focused on one thing, one thing that is necessary. And, of course, the object of their focus is different: Andy Dufresne on a human object of beauty, Mary on Jesus of Nazareth. But the shape of their focus is the same: they both are filled with wonder, with admiration, with love. 
            By teaching our children to wonder—at a leaf, or a great story, or a fine painting, or a perplexing question—we teach them a habit which may pay rich dividends not only for this life, but for the life to come. Because what Jesus is telling us in this story is that in the end there is one essential question we must all face: Have we learned to worship (wonder at, admire, love) the Son of God?
            What our world needs today is a school that will keep this front and center and make this the one thing necessary. Thank you for being part of Trinity, a school that is trying to do just that.

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