Research Cycle

 The Question Mark

 Vol 1|No 4|January|2005
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Why Wonder?

By Jamie McKenzie

(about author)

© 2005, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.
This article is Chapter Two of Jamie McKenzie's book, Learning to Question to Wonder to Learn. Click here for more information.

Wondering is about entertaining and exploring possibilities.

It is about hope and faith. It can also be about questioning and doubt . . . wondering why things are the way they are.

We invite good things to make an appearance. We expect that dreams can make life better. We refuse to settle for less.

“Hold fast to dreams,” warned Langston Hughes, “for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.”

Our sense of wonder - if alive and well - applauds each marvel, each grace, each surprise. We appreciate the extraordinary, the novel and the unique. We hunger for the good, work for the better and hope that the hohumdrum pressures and banalities of life will be supplanted by something more magical. We dream that we can transcend the mundane, that we can escape oblivion, boredom and a life without consequence.

If we are capable of wondering, our mind takes flight and dares to dream. Wondering infuses our questioning and our thinking with a spiritual aspect. Children learn that life can be much more than another brick in the wall.

Much of my own thinking about wonder was inspired by reading Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder, first published by Harper & Row in 1965. As an elementary principal spending lots of time wondering about the dreaming, thinking and questioning of very young children, I found that certain passages resonated intensely with my own impressions and thoughts.

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later life, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.
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The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson was first published by Harper & Row in 1965. A wonderful new edition (Harper-Collins, ISBN 0-06-757520-X)) with fresh photographs by Nick Kelsh was published in 1998. It offers a vivid collection of words and images illustrating the allure of wonder.
The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused - a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love - then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response.

Once found it has lasting meaning.

It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.

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If young ones can maintain a sense of wonder as they pass through early childhood into adolescence and early adulthood, that inclination may inspire much of their questioning. As they yearn to understand and make the best of life, a sense of wonder tilts their thinking forward. They grow bolder and stronger in their questioning, testing the edges and boundaries of conventional reasoning, pushing into new territory, demanding fresh truths and answers. They will not see school as a time to memorize time honored answers to multiple choice questions. They will refuse to participate in the “one more brick in the wall” rituals.

But wondering is not a simple joy ride. It has a dark side. The hunger for meaning is not always satisfied. The comfort of memorizing conventional wisdom and platitudes is traded for a much tougher journey, one that often frustrates, teases and disappoints the earnest student. Satisfying, authentic answers are often elusive.

And not all wondering aims high. Students may wonder about trivial matters.

“How long is a tiger’s tail?”
“What was the name of emperor’s fourth wife?”

Wonder can slip and slide into mere curiosity, just as curiosity can grow into wonderment.

Wondering about fundamental issues and major concerns may take courage and fortitude.

“How can we put an end to war?”
“How can we make sure all children are decently fed and housed?”
“How can we make sure no child is truly left behind?”

These are questions worth wondering about, but answers are unlikely to sprout like spring flowers eager to be picked and displayed. Only the simple minded find simple answers to such profoundly troubling and challenging questions.

Sadly, history is littered with examples of leaders and movements that cut short the wondering and searching for genuine answers to such problems, substituting gimmicks, myths and shadowboxing for real solutions. If the citizens are mentally soft, they may climb right aboard such movements without asking tough questions or wondering whether the proposals make any sense at all.

At its best, wondering combines doubting and dreaming in a powerful partnership to test value. We would hope that all of our young will acquire the inclination and the skills to wonder about the authority of a particular Web site, the reliability of information put forth by a TV or radio station and the worth of a politician’s proposal.

Wondering should occur throughout every day of one’s life, whether it be about the small issues or the large ones.

“I wonder what’s the best way to get around this traffic jam?”
“I wonder what’s going to happen in the election today?”
“I wonder how I will adjust if my candidate loses?”

Sadly, wonder can also serve the interests of social control as politicians extending as far back as the Roman Empire have run a circus of one kind or another in order to win the hearts and minds of the populace.

Tribalism, propaganda and marketing depend as much upon magic and wonder as churches, social movements, prophets and revolutionaries. Some of these uses of wonder are heavenly, inspirational and divine, while others are evil to the core, trusting to the power of magic and wonder to sway the feelings and the fears of unsuspecting folk in order to capture their obedience.

A photograph can provoke the most profound emotional reactions, whether they be feelings of wonder or horror. In current times, these images are used repeatedly in the war for human sympathy for one cause or another. The tie between horror and wonder is strong and the distance between them is all too small.

A picture of suffering provokes wondering.
A picture of torture provokes horror.

The younger citizens of this century are bombarded with such images, whether they be about war or deodorant or clothing. One cannot learn about the world without absorbing thousands of images directed at shaping our feelings, wishes, dreams and actions by manipulating out natural sense of wonder.

This book is dedicated to the proposition that wondering without questioning is a form of surrender, a kind of acquiescence in the face of powerful forces far from benign.

The schools of a democratic society are charged with a solemn responsibility to equip the young with questioning skills that support wondering in the best sense, that insulate young ones from propaganda and manipulation.

We should recognize that this goal is not embraced by powerful figures who profit in various ways from the acquiescence mentioned above. For decades we have seen various groups do what they could to mobilize what political scientists call the mob. Playing upon their fears and baser instincts, these groups on both the left and right have waved flags, provided stirring music and rung bells that were calculated to arouse the hatred, scorn and loyalty of followers.

At its worst this kind of movement leads to gas chambers and death camps. At its extreme edges, this kind of manipulation leads to senseless wars and ethnic cleansing. We see thousands killed and killing in the name of one god or another.

The phenomenon extends across a spectrum from severe to mild.

Social justice can erode as leaders speak disingenuously of compassion, as jobs are sent overseas and international sweatshops sprout up to serve the fashion needs of wealthy nations.

The privileged and affluent young of one nation are swayed by clever advertising to show their personal sense of style by clothing themselves in the latest fashions sewn by those workers in third world nations slaving at $30-$40 per week in conditions that are often unhealthy and dangerous.

Without sharpened questioning skills, we and the young may surrender to fashions and movements unknowingly. On the surface, at least, twenty years after 1984 we seem safe from the dangers predicted by the book of that title, but scratch that surface. Take the time to wonder, to question and to learn.

Are we safe?
Has 1984 come and gone?
How can we best teach the young to wonder in ways that will evoke true compassion rather than sham versions?
How can we nurture a sense of wonder that is linked to some universal sense of goodness rather than its evil mirror image?

This book will suggest that questioning is the answer.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

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