Saturday, June 10, 2017

Teaching Wonder

The theme of Mythmoot IV was "Invoking Wonder," and one of the plenary sessions featured all the special guests (academics and artists) sharing their earliest experiences of wonder and attempting to capture the term in a butterfly net of definitions or partial synonyms.

At one point, someone wondered aloud about how to "teach wonder" - and another panelist briefly chimed in to suggest that it would be desirable for parents to teach their children wonder.  As no one seemed to have any immediate ideas about how to do so, and there was a lot to cover, they moved on.

1. Parents and Children

Of course, asking how parents can teach their children wonder is exactly the wrong question -- it is children who teach parents wonder.  At the very least, they offer their parents an opportunity to experience Recovery as they explore the world around them for the first time.*

I remember an uncrowded afternoon on the Jersey shore, when a young child (perhaps 5 to 7 years old) was shrieking with delight and jumping around at the water's edge as her father looked on.  I was struck with her untrammeled joy at this extraordinary phenomenon - a vast body of water continuously reaching forward on the sand and drawing back again, each movement the same and different, a mysterious and powerful unseen engine at her service.   I was in my mid to late twenties, and I remember thinking, "Oh, that's why people have children."

This is not to say that parents are always in the best position to receive lessons of wonder  from their children.  Although they have the greatest exposure, they may be harried and frazzled, and otherwise distracted by the many responsibilities they have assumed in undertaking to shepherd a small human being to adulthood.  It's probably other adults who are free of those burdens -- the grandparents and the aunts, for example -- who may (if so inclined) most easily enter into a child's world and experience wonder side by side, as if through the child's eyes.

And thus I once traveled by rocket ship to India with a four-year-old, from a playground in the suburbs.


There is, of course, a kind of wonder parents may experience more strongly and poignantly than any other adult in a child's life, although these moments may be overwhelmed by the ever-rushing flood of everyday cares and concerns (including sickness, diaper-changing, and the like).  There's a sort of awe, reverence, and humility involved in realizing initially This beautiful perfect tiny helpless human being is entrusted entirely to me, and I believe there are many similar moments in a child's life and devlopment where a child -- simply by existing, growing, and acting as a child does -- can strike wonder in the hearts of its parents.

2. Teachers and Students

As for the academic setting, I'm inclined to believe it is unwise to try to teach wonder directly.  Students can easily parrot back the "proper" responses without gaining mastery of the material.  Instead, teach them rigorously on the basics, whatever the subject.

If students can, after much grumbling and resistance, acquire the requisite knowledge, tools and frameworks, they just might be able to unlock wonder on their own, if they are inclined to wrestle with some difficult problem until the dawn.
25  And Yaakov was left alone --
      Now a man wrestled with him until the dawn rose.
26  When he saw that he could not prevail against him,
      he touched the socket of his thigh;
      the socket of Yaakov's thigh had been dislocated as he wrestled with him.
27  Then he said:
      Let me go,
      for the dawn has risen!
      But he said:
      I will not let you go
      unless you bless me.
28  He said to him:
      What is your name?
      And he said: Yaakov.
29  Then he said:
      Not as Yaakov/Heel-Sneak shall your name be henceforth uttered,
      but rather as Israel/God-Fighter,
      for you have fought with God and men
      and have prevailed.
Gen. 32:25-29.
(Source: Everett Fox.  Genesis and Exodus: A New English Rendition.  New York: Schocken Books, 1990.)


FN* As a non-wondrous example of Recovery, it was my younger niece who taught me to love prunes.  She did this by example, before she was able to speak in complete sentences. She begged her parents for prunes between meals one afternoon.  They looked at her sternly and said "OK, you can have three." When they turned away, she grabbed five.  She had not yet learned to be repulsed by prunes' appearance or by their association with the elderly!  And when I tried them again, I discovered why.


Very minor note:
In the first paragraph, I use the term "net" partly in homage to CSL:
[A story's] plot, as we call it -- is only really a net whereby to catch something else.  The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something [...] much more like a state or quality.  Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path. [...]  In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.  Whether in real life there is any doctor who can teach us how to do it, so that at last either the meshes will become fine enough to hold the bird, or we be so changed that we can throw our nets away and follow the bird to its own country, is not a question for this essay.  But I think it is sometimes done -- or very, very nearly done -- in stories.  I believe the effort to be well worth making.
C.S. Lewis, "On Stories" (1947).  
(Source: On Stories and Other Essays on Literature. Ed. Walter Hooper.  San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1982.)


Tom Hillman said...

Lee, I still feel exactly like that child when I look at the Sea, though the shrieking is all done internally, lest they lock me up in a tower from whose top I cannot see the Sea.

LeesMyth said...

Joe said...

The least-wondrous version of recovery that I ever heard was the first few pages of Three Men in a Boat, wherein reading about symptoms reminds J that he has them. I love the paradoxical idea that recovery causes illness.