From Wonder to Wisdom
I wonder whether Dante knew, when he first beheld Beatrice, that her beauty would shape his life so powerfully; that it would inspire him, first, to write La Vita Nuova; and, finally, to write his great magnum opus, La Divina Commedia. I also wonder whether Augustine, when he chanced upon Cicero’s Hortensius in the course of his rhetorical studies, realized that those philosophical musings would lead him on a long spiritual journey to his final, restful end. I suspect neither knew the impact these encounters would have on them.
At this point you may yourself wonder what links Dante’s infatuation with a mesmerizing Florentine woman to Augustine’s soul-turning encounter with a Roman rhetorician’s dialogue. The answer is a word that I have already thrice employed: wonder.
Socrates tells us in Plato’s Theaetetus that wonder is the beginning of philosophy. It is a wind that fills the sails of the mind and sends it venturing forth. It is a flame that enkindles the mind and heart with an ardent desire to know the True. Many things can inspire wonder: for Dante, it was his encounter with beauty; for Augustine it was his encounter with philosophy garmented in beautiful rhetoric. For both, this wonder was the beginning of a journey. Dante’s poetical pilgrimage ended in his realization that Beatrice’s created beauty was a reflection of the divine beauty which penetrates and resounds everywhere. Augustine’s interior voyage wound among and through heresies and false philosophies until at last he found rest in God. It was wonder that prompted both Dante and Augustine to leave the comfort of their lives in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
Wonder draws us out of ourselves. It shocks us into recognizing the dark wood in which we may often find ourselves. It is in this sense that wonder is the beginning of a true education. Just as it was wonder that enkindled in Dante the desire to turn the comedy of his life into epic verse, so too should our education contain a healthy dose of wonder to spur our hearts and minds. It should inspire within us the studious wish to come to the Truth, grow in the Good, and know the Beautiful. Such education goes beyond the walls of a dusty schoolroom. It suffuses the whole of our lives, a crucial part of the journey toward our ultimate destination.
For parents and teachers, such education requires us to find ways to fill classes with wonder. Practically speaking, this means finding books, activities, and tests that capture the imagination of children. Rather than assigning sterile information manuals, offer great and classic books: those works that for centuries have inspired men and women, shaping our civilization and enriching our culture. Rather than showing diagrams of a dissected frog, help students to experience the wonder of creation firsthand by hiking and searching for frogs along a riverbank. Rather than forcing them to take stale and sedentary standardized exams, challenge your students with evaluations—such as the Classic Learning Test—that continue the wondrous education that UMSI families are uniquely suited to provide. If we can bring wonder back into education, classrooms will be enlivened. Moreover, they’ll be filled with true students, eager to embark on lifelong journeys of learning just like those of Dante and Augustine.