Each year on Academic Awards night I give a brief talk to the assembled students and parents–this year I spoke on the quality of wonder.
Academic Awards Night 2013
I’d like to speak tonight—a night on which we celebrate all kinds of measurable excellence—in praise of the quality of wonder, for which, ironically, there is no measuring rubric. “Wonder,” writes my friend Tom Hibbs, Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University, “is a counter to two of the chief vices of our time: inordinate certitude, the confidence that we know everything there is to know, and [radical] skepticism, a surrender of the human spirit that despairs of the very quest for truth.”
So, how does cultivating an attitude of wonder inoculate us against the twin evils of absolute certitude and absolute relativism? It does so because it draws us away from what we are positive about and it gives us hope about what is to come. Wonder means that you are not likely to think of education or intelligence as an accumulation of facts or a set of answers that you can apply anywhere. Wonder pushes you to go outside of your usual limits. And wonder nourishes a passion for meaning; it asks us to connect the things we know to the things we don’t know—and to understand those connections.
Think of the acquiring of knowledge (and eventually wisdom) as sailing in an archipelago—or a series of islands. Each time we get to an island, we own a bit of knowledge, but we get restless, we “wonder” what is out there—and in an act of surpassing bravery we set sail again for the next island—not sure if we will get there or when—but believing that we will. One is never certain where one will end up next and that is where the courage comes in. Can we risk giving up our inherited and adopted opinions? Can we challenge our own ideas? Wonder makes that possible. So we travel and arrive at our new outpost and reflect on how we got here—but soon, for it is in our temperament, we will have to forge on. We check our ship—make sure our ideas are sound, our minds and sails open, and our senses aware. We’ll wonder what’s next and what it will take to get to our next port of call, whether we’ll follow where others have been—though for us it will be brand new and so still a great thing—or whether we’ll go, like members of the Enterprise, where no one has gone before. Can we wonder like Newton, like Clerk Maxwell, like Einstein, like Heisenberg, like Higgs? Each refused the certainty of his own time and each refused to yield to radical skepticism. Can we wonder like Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Kant; can we wonder with them? Can we wonder with Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Ellison? Can we wonder with Capra, Ford, Eastwood, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Nolan, and Pixar? Can we wonder with King and Chavez, with Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, with the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis? Nothing can stop us wondering except ourselves.
An unreasonable certainty is one of our great enemies. We might be tempted to settle down on our current “island of knowledge” and never go out again—we would shut off our capacity for wonder. We could believe as the early map makers did that when we can no longer see the next land that “here there be dragons”—that is the curse of certainty without wonder. Our other enemy, radical skepticism would have us recognize no lands, no safe harbors, no places to mark or guide ourselves—just endless wandering under a starless, sunless sky—movement without purpose.
Wonder is small-d democratic. It requires no natural ability and anyone can cultivate it. It is free to all in whatever portion, generous or meager, you wish to take—and it is inexhaustible—it cannot be used up.
There is one thing that wonder cannot do—it cannot make you immune to failure, which is why the corollary to wonder is courage. If you wonder, then you will make mistakes–you’ll sail in circles sometimes; your destination will not be obvious, you may land on several islands that DO NOT have water, wood, food or whatever you need before you find the next right one. Certainty and radical skepticism won’t make you immune to failure either but they promise that they will and because of that lie they require no courage, no risk, no vulnerability. Certainty gives you the illusion of immunity to failure because you risk nothing. Bunkered down in your own ideas, talking only to yourself, listening to those with whom you already agree—ah, there is safety in that. Radical skepticism will also give you the illusion of immunity to failure for the same reason—you acknowledge no authority, you question every motive, you doubt every idea or action (except your own)—you stand always on the outside—you never risk anything.
The reason that certainty and radical skepticism lead to the same place is because no motion—a perfect stasis—is the equivalent of all motion with no direction—a perfect kinesis. In the lexicon of physics, life does not exist at zero degrees Kelvin—perfect stasis—any more than it exists in absolute entropy.
One of my heroes, Carl Jung, said “One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.” All of us here, of whatever age or gender, no matter where we are seated, play both roles—teacher and pupil—over and over in our lives. Let’s vow to use the currency, the coin, of wonder to repay the teachers in our lives. If we do so—they, and we—will be paid in full.