Sailing in the Archipelago of Knowledge: Wonder, Certainty, and Skepticism

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.



Filed under books and learning, definitions, education, Human Nature, pedagogy, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Sailing in the Archipelago of Knowledge: Wonder, Certainty, and Skepticism

    • Thanks John. Incidentally, another class of students is using the McGean Model to help them undertand Invisible Man. Without it, Ellison’s mighty text might get away from them. Thanks. d

  1. Dan – Thanks much for posting this. I great enjoyed both listening to your remarks at the awards ceremony the other night, and then reading them over again. I appreciated the written version even more, as there is a lot here worth pondering.

    Along these lines, some of your observations about the imperative to and the importance of perpetual wonder / wondering reminded me of a pet peeve of mine, i.e., the term “the best and brightest” — which is perhaps something of a synonym for “absolute certainty.”

    I hear this term frequently used and overused by numerous businesses, governmental organizations, educational institutions, etc., i.e., “our employees/students are the best and the brightest,” or “we recruit only the best and the brightest.”

    In addition to sounding too self-congratulatory, I also find “the best and the brightest” term to be a bit off-putting and even ironic. In this regard, “the best and the brightest” phrase was first popularized by author David Halberstam’s best-selling 1969 book of the same name, which addressed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The phrase referred to President Kennedy’s “whiz kids”—leaders of industry and academia brought into his administration—who Halberstam characterized as arrogantly insisting on “brilliant policies that defied common sense” in Vietnam, often against the advice of career U.S. Department of State Vietnam experts and diplomatic veterans. Indeed, before Halberstam passed away a few years ago, he wrote the following concerning “the best and the brightest” term: “It went into the language, although it is often misused, failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended.”

    Mingling McMahon’s and Halberstam’s on-target analyses suggests that if one is told that he is “the best and the brightest,” or if he becomes convinced he has fully achieved “best and brightest” status, his sense of wonder would then be substantially diminished. And thus, lacking such a strong and sustained commitment to wonder, one would very quickly become neither the best, nor the brightest.

    In contrast, to me the term “scholars and gentlemen” seems to correctly capture the imperative of continuous improvement, the commitment to achieve ever-higher standards, and the character to constantly wonder.

    • Hi Dan, thanks for your lovely comment. Like you, I am often mystified by the use of “best and brightest” which, as you correctly point out, was certainly meant acerbically and ironically when Halberstam mentioned it. The very arrogance of believing you have achieved “best and brightest” status would automatically disqualify you from having done so. Back to Socrates, one only knows to the extent one realizes what one doesn’t know–we are wise only to the extent we know we are not wise. As loath as I am to disagree with Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull–ONLY the wise man knows how it feels to be thick as a brisk.

  2. JustSomeGuy


    This is beautiful and worthy. I’m poaching much of it (with credit) for the address I was chosen to give for our school’s eighth grade promotion ceremony.

    I don’t think I’ve commented previously, but I really enjoy your blog. I’m a history teacher who used to also teach language arts. I find myself saving your posts and savoring them.



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