Wonder of wonders: South Florida educators connect students to reality

Wonder of wonders, indeed. In an age when instructional minutes are logged with the attention of gold dust collectors, where documenting each standard, sub-standard, and sub-sub-standard is the teachers’ burden, it is refreshingly wonderful to see that Catholic schools in south Florida are pursuing wonder first.

It is wonderful to see these Catholic schools striving to truly educate their students—educate, from the Latin educere, meaning to “lead out from.”

On Aug. 21, the Archdiocese of Miami and the Diocese of Palm Beach were educating their students in a most literal way—literally “leading (the students) out from (the classroom).” They decided to dismiss students early so they could partake in the rare experience of viewing what was dubbed as The Great American Eclipse.

In an article in the Sun Sentinel, Dianne Laubert, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Palm Beach said, “It’s also a once-in-lifetime opportunity for students, for children to experience this with their families.”

What is this opportunity? Seeing the Great American Eclipse. Gazing in awe at the grandeur of God’s awesome creation. Wondering at the marvels of His gifts to us which are “ever ancient, ever new.”

Two important elements of a Catholic education happened in south Florida during that event. First, Ms. Laubert referenced a foundational principle in Catholic education and directed people to the importance of it—that the students should experience this great marvel with the primary educators of the children: their families.

What a blessing that these Catholic educators know and live the heritage that our Church has taught for ages—that parents are the primary educators of their children, and that schools share in this sacred responsibility aiding the parents along the way in their vocational call.

The second laudable act was following in the millennia-old practice of the Church in her educational praxis, seeking wonder and genuine experience. From St. Paul to modern times, we see fathers of the Church and fathers of science guide our minds to experience reality—and to see the manifestations of the Author of reality in these sense experiences.

What does St. Paul have to say about the study of natural things?

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20).

Fast forward 2,000 years from St. Paul to Vincent Edward Smith, a graduate of Harvard and MIT and a renowned scientist and philosopher, who reminds us that sense experience is the essential element of scientific study, the beginning of all human knowledge, in fact. And, further, that once we have that knowledge we can think, abstract, and perceive God’s power and deity.

“All human knowledge in the natural order begins with the material things of sense experience. But unlike other animals which are also capable of sensation, man has an intellect. This intellect, in knowing what the senses bring before it, naturally performs an operation called abstraction.” The School Examined, p 3

These two views oftentimes seem lost in the pursuit of scientific thought and formation. Even more, they are hardly ever even mentioned, much less discussed.

As a frequent attendee of educational lectures, trainings and conferences, STEM (curricular focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is certainly a leader in the headlines of these events. Yet, as much as is written and said about STEM, rarely do I hear the word “wonder.” And yet, wonder should the first thing we are attentive to in elementary and secondary education in science. Wonder is what inspired innovation, discovery, and great betterment for mankind.

If we want our children really to be scientists, lovers of science and creation, good stewards of His earth, we need to inspire wonder in our students throughout their elementary and secondary years. This is done best when our children really meet reality up close and personal. What adult has not marveled at a child totally captivated by something as simple as a caterpillar or hummingbird? Where has that gone? Why can’t we hold onto that wonder? We can! But we can only do so with the ongoing connection to reality—like the children in the dioceses of Palm Beach and Miami.

At the many talks I’ve attended on science education over the decades, I’ve heard virtually nothing about the connection of reality to Reality. I have yet to hear a whisper of the age-old grounding wisdom akin to C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man when he states, “For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue.”

From this rightly ordered vantage point arose countless advances in philosophy, art, literature and, yes, especially science. Lewis goes on to be cautiously critical about the contrary view of reality finding favor in the realm of scientific study, where, instead of conforming ourselves to reality, the trend had been “how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.”

It seems that Catholic schools in south Florida deserve kudos for bending ourselves and our schedules, standards and curriculum, to the wonder in the sky—to God’s great reality.

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

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