The philosophy of wonder: Inspiration for Catholic education

We live in a society that has little time for wonder. In fact, we have no need to wonder, because the answers to our questions are almost immediately at our fingertips, thanks to the omnipresence of the smartphone and computer. We no longer need to search through books in order to find an answer, nor do we need to sit in aporia with our friends around the dinner table. At the press of a button, we can have an answer to our questions instantaneously.

This instant gratification concerning facts, however, has detrimental effects for education. True learning begins in wonder and the questions that wonder prompts, and the truth is only acquired after searching and pondering over the many facets of a question. It is essential, therefore, in our modern day, to explore the role of wonder in Catholic education.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle states, “All men by nature desire to know.” He further says, “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe.”

Wonder is the beginning of philosophy; it is the beginning of questioning the “why” behind the universe. Because men desire to know, they naturally desire to know the causes of things, and ultimately, the first cause of all things.

In The Philosophical Act, Josef Pieper takes up this same theme when he writes, “To perceive all that is unusual and exceptional, all that is wonderful, in the midst of the ordinary things of everyday life, is the beginning of philosophy…. The man to whom everything is an occasion of wonder will sometimes simply forget to use these things in a workaday world.”

In the midst of the ordinary world, therefore, the man who is motivated by wonder pauses to consider what is unusual—in a word, that which is beyond himself. Wonder is the means by which man looks beyond the mundane “workaday world,” in Pieper’s famous phrase, to the deepest questions of the existence of reality. This wonder is hindered when man is caught up in the workaday world—for example, in our day, when he is absorbed by technology to the point that he no longer asks the ultimate questions.

As stated in the introduction, this lack of wonder in our society poses a real problem for education, and especially Catholic education. Wonder is the beginning of learning for children and for adults. What, then, is a good way to cultivate the experience of wonder in our modern society? Aristotle has already given us an indication: The ancients began looking at the moon and the sun, and then to the ultimate genesis of the universe. In other words, nature inspired wonder within the souls of the ancients. While William Wordsworth is perhaps a bit too keen to dismiss the importance of studying books, we can take the following verse from the poem “The Tables Turned” as our foundation:

Books! ‘tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

This last verse is essential: Nature, God’s great creation, is a profound teacher. We live in a world that is mechanized and virtual; the number of children who have never seen a real cow or experienced the songbirds because of living in a city is astonishing. Yet we are meant to live in harmony with nature, because God placed man in the garden to till and keep it. When man experiences nature, he cannot help but give praise to God, who created it. And indeed, all of creation is essentially praising and worshipping God, because of his infinite goodness which breathes life into it. Here is where wonder begins: looking at the intricacies of a fern leaf, listening to the linnet sing, admiring the magnificence of an oak tree. All of these things are the handiwork of God, and students would benefit greatly if their teachers took them out into the wilderness, simply to experience it.

The greatest travesty is the inability to wonder. Pieper recounts the following experience while traveling on a boat from Canada to the United States, “At table I had mentioned those magnificent fluorescent sea creatures whirled up to the surface by the hundreds in our ship’s bow wake. The next day it was casually mentioned that ‘last night there was nothing to be seen.’ Indeed, for nobody had the patience to let the eyes adapt to the darkness. To repeat, then: man’s ability to see is in decline.”

Once again, Pieper speaks of the role of nature: Man is no longer searching and seeing, which means that he is no longer wondering at the world surrounding him. The “fluorescent sea creatures” could seem mundane and ordinary; they are insignificant in comparison to perhaps the tasks of business that concern many. But, we should be wondering at those small things, in the midst of our other daily concerns. In our world, however, which is almost entirely consumed by technology, we have truly lost the ability to see and to wonder. We cannot even look up from our smartphones while walking down the sidewalk; how are we to see the hawk in the tree, the flower growing from the crack in the road, the geese flying overhead? Because we have lost our touch with reality, we really no longer have the ability to wonder.

The wonder that is begun in nature can be brought to fruition in the classroom through reading great books, despite any of Wordsworth’s protestations. The questions that were begun in nature—such as the cause of a bird laying an egg to the ultimate cause of the universe—can be developed through reading great literature and philosophy, for the authors and characters are asking these same questions.

Consider Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. In this work, Gradgrind is only concerned about the facts; he is not asking the ultimate questions, and the readers recognize that there is a deficiency in his method. Plato’s dialogues are fueled by the questions of individuals who are wondering and seeking to know the truth (although some characters are more sophistical than others). Given that our culture is focused on sensory experience and not rational discussion, we can begin to develop wonder in the outdoors, where we use our senses to understand something. Then, we can take that initial experience into the classroom to help foster logical and rational discussions about the truth.

In short, we must help students to acquire the ability to wonder once again. We must help students learn to see again, to see the world around them, not merely as a tool to be used, but as something beautiful given to us by God. This wonder is natural to men, but has become obscured by the smartphone. To reinvigorate Catholic education, we ought to inspire wonder within students, and begin by letting Nature—God’s wondrous creation—be our teacher.

VERONICA ARNTZ graduated from Wyoming Catholic College with a degree in the classical liberal arts. She is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in theology from the Augustine Institute.

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