The Wonder Years

In the spirit of revision that we as Paideia instructors at Luther College try to pass on to our students, I have scrapped a previous version of this blog post in order to riff off of a theme that Amy Weldon discussed in her blog post "Darwin's Beetle: On Geeking Out" which immediately precedes mine on Ideas and Creations. I had intended to discuss the importance of what athletes know as "practice" or "training," if true education is to take place, but that will have to wait, however, because Amy's post struck a real chord that is well worth exploring again—and which I believe strongly is another crucial factor in education.

For those of us that grew up in the late 80s and 90s, "The Wonder Years" was a television staple-the true-to-life travails of Kevin Arnold as he passed from junior high into high school brought forth many laughs and perhaps, caused the shedding of a few tears. I've borrowed the title of that show for the title of this blog post because I am convinced that, in order to be effective in teaching, we have got somehow to help our students recover a sense of wonder, and a humble intellectual curiosity like that which Amy described in her post last week. What many of us long for as professors is to live a life characterized by that sense. For our students, college ought to be a time we can rightly call "The Wonder Years." It should be a time in which they feel free to ask questions and to explore, seeking out answers to things they wonder about. Very likely of course this practice will not only bring some answers, but also breed more questions, but... that's ok (maybe it's even the point!).

Amy's post reminded me of some related things I had been thinking about this summer, as I was returning from my sabbatical, and thinking about teaching. Early this spring, I picked up a couple of volumes of Walker Percy essays - and one of these essays, titled "The Delta Factor," examines the modern malaise that manifests itself in, among other things, ennui-a sense of listless boredom with life and a lack of desire to explore. Percy begins this essay by listing a number of probing questions that could very well lead to excellent discussion concerning human nature, our interactions with others, our language, our culture, etc. Among the more thought-provoking questions I found in this essay were these:

"Why is it harder to study a dogfish on a dissecting board in a zoological laboratory in college where one has proper instruments and a proper light than it would be if one were marooned on an island and, having come upon a dogfish on the beach and having no better instrument than a pocket knife or bobby pin, one began to explore the dogfish?" (Percy, 5)

"Why is it all but impossible to read Shakespeare in school now but will not be fifty years from now when the Western world has fallen into ruins and a survivor sitting among the vines of the Forty-second Street library spies a moldering book and opens it to 'The Tempest'?" (5)

Yes, Mr. Percy, why is that? What is it about us that these things are such striking illustrations of something we'd probably all agree is true? What has happened to us as a culture such that the fascination with either the natural world, or appreciation for the literary genius of a Shakespeare (or Eliot, or Kafka, or Wordsworth, or Dante) is either absent or deeply suppressed?  Why is it that the exploration of the human condition in a dusty old work by an unknown Anglo Saxon poet isn't worth our time? Why the study of a Turner landscape or Constable seascape is something that elicits yawns?

As a father of four girls under the age of 13, it seems to me that a lack of curiosity or wonder in children isn't a natural thing...so is the cause of this Percy's modern malaise to be found in our society in general? In our schools? Parents? Genes? Who knows? The questions he asks however, should set us pondering for a good long spell. What should be done about it, it seems to me, should elicit still another, perhaps longer, period of reflection, especially as liberal arts college professors in this uncertain time.

PedlarThe picture I've included as an inset in this post is from the recent trip my oldest and I took back to the state of Washington in July to celebrate my grandmother's 95th birthday. There Abby stood-for the better part of a half hour-poking the dead flatfish (of whatever kind it was) with a stick, turning it this way and that, examining its teeth, underside, fins, etc. Gross? NO WAY! I was completely transfixed just watching her study that fish. I never could have replicated that experience with a prescribed exercise on a lab bench (or worse, sitting at a computer screen Googling about the subject). She was studying.... exploring.... learning... in a better and I daresay more effective manner than many other methods could produce. As this academic year begins, I'm thankful for these reminders-both from Percy's pen and from the simple act of watching Abby's exploration-of what it is we ought to be about here at Luther.

So I haven't answered any real questions about how we might help students develop, or recover, a sense of wonder and intellectual curiosity. If anything, I might offer this: to ask good questions, as an instructor in a college course, is one of the best ways I can think of to help students embrace an intellectually curious life. Good questions are those that move the student beyond the surface-that require more than a rote answer or simple, black-and-white analysis. By pushing students outside the realm of such rote questions, we give them practice in not only seeking answers (partial or otherwise), but in constructing such questions themselves (because often such questions simply-as I noted above-breed more questions). In doing so, perhaps-and I think this is a good bet-some of them may find that they've reopened the tap of youthful curiosity that has perhaps run a bit dry.

At this point I'll leave you with such a question-one more interesting ponderable from "The Delta Factor" that would serve most ably as a conversation starter with a colleague over a glass of wine or beer (as long as it's GOOD beer, not the transparent pale yellow swill that most of America seems to think is worth consuming):

"Why is the metaphor "Flesh is grass", which is not only wrong (flesh is not grass) but inappropriate (flesh is not even like grass), better and truer than the sentence "Flesh is mortal," which is quite accurate and logical?" (5)

Yes, Mr. Percy, why is that? Sounds like a great question to bring to the Paideia table sometime—or, if you're so inclined, join me at Toppling Goliath to talk it over. I'm sure we'd find much pleasure in batting that question (and others like it) about for a while.

---

Percy, Walker, "The Delta Factor", The Message in a Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do With the Other (New York: Picador, 2000), 3-45.

Headshot - Todd PedlarTodd Pedlar is associate professor of physics at Luther College. In addition to his teaching in physics, Pedlar has taught both in Paideia I and Paideia II. His research field is elementary particle physics, and he is a member of the Belle and Belle II Collaborations, which operate experiments at KEK, the national high energy physics laboratory of Japan. He studies the spectroscopy of heavy quarkonium systems, and is engaged in the design of advanced detector systems for the upcoming Belle II experiment. His published work includes several recent articles in Physical Review Letters, and a major review article titled "Recent Results in Bottomonium," published in October in the 2013 volume of Annual Reviews of Nuclear and Particle Science. Read more of his reflections on teaching, academia and the liberal arts at his blog, Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax.

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Comments

  • November 1 2013 at 11:47 am
    Amy Weldon

    Well-said, Todd, or should I say, well-asked? These are questions I will continue to ponder, even more so after having read this excellent piece. "What many of us long for as professors is to live a life characterized by that sense." True words. Very true.

    Since you are a scientist, I know you know this book from (one of the several) place(s) where your field and mine overlap, but I would like to add it to the comment thread so others can see: I don't think it's accidental that the great English biographer and scholar Richard Holmes titled his book on Romantic-era science (which includes a chapter on Mary Shelley and _Frankenstein_) "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science." I love this book, particularly since it weaves the emotions of wonder and awe into the history of scientific discovery it describes. A good review by another great historical writer is here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/oct/11/richard-holmes

    Great post, Todd, and thanks for the shout-out. :) 

  • November 1 2013 at 11:48 am
    Amy Weldon

    And of course I have to add at least a mention of the "flesh is grass" metaphor as it appears in Walt Whitman's _Leaves of Grass:_

    http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15816

  • November 6 2013 at 1:01 pm
    Todd Pedlar
    Thanks for that pointer - yet another book on my must purchase list :) One thing I think we do well here at Luther and can continue to work on even more is to pass on the sense of child-like wonder to our students by being wondering wanderers ourselves! One of the things that I think shuts down discussion, thought, and curious investigation is the scholar who gives forth the notion that everything is completely figured out. We all, in our various fields, are explorers and seekers of truth, beauty or goodness, either one at a time or all together... the moment we stop seeking after new knowledge, or new understandings or interpretations is the moment we, in my opinion, really stop being scholars and start being "experts" in a static sense. So let's keep being kids, eh? T

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