Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Final Principle for Experience-based History: "People are Trapped in History, and History is Trapped in Them"

The other day I was sitting in an Upper West Side cafe with two friends of mine, Ken and Valerie, who happen to be expert historians. Both of them are professors at Columbia University and one of them knows as much about New York City as anyone in the world, and the other is the chief historian of the New York Historical Society. In short, they have internalized all the skills that an historian practices to a point where they don't even consciously think about being historians--they are historians. What I realized as I was talking to them--well, listening really carefully actually--was that there was another vital element of being an historian that they exuded almost as second nature.

The way in which they approached every topic we addressed reminded me of something James Baldwin had said years ago, "People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them." Baldwin came to this realization when he chronicled his experiences in a remote Swiss village in 1951 in the essay from Notes of a Native Son entitled, "Stranger in the Village." And it was precisely this sensibility that Ken and Valerie possessed as a foundation for the way they constructed their world. In other words, whether they were talking about the effect of the urban planner Robert Moses' ideas on the physical place where we were sitting or the way long dead New York City mayors were obviously influencing the present mayoral race-- there was always the the ability to see the past in the present. This kind of time travel to the intersection of the past and the present is what expert historians do, and it is one of the hardest things to teach novice historians. As a side note (though perhaps not really too much to the side) why are some of the best experience-based "historians" -- Baldwin, Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison -- writers in genres other than traditional history? All of them possess deep and sophisticated understandings of the way the past and present intersect, and it is part of what makes their writing so psychologically compelling.

Baldwin continued his thinking fourteen years later in a much under-appreciated essay entitled, "The White Man's Guilt." As well as being one of the most striking examples of empathy in the way I have been describing it in previous blog posts, Baldwin explains in this essay how the past and the present exist simultaneously, and how that affects who one is and how one acts. Baldwin writes, "History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one's point of view." 

What Baldwin is reminding us is vital to having students engage in experience-based history early in their academic lives. We have collective public pasts that constitute history and we have private pasts that are expressed through memoir, and the intersection of those two is what we call daily life. It is the daily life we encounter every day, and it is what we are unconsciously controlled by. Students can be brought to see this in a multitude of ways, but many history teachers are reluctant to let students play the game of history the way Ken and Valerie do for fear they will do it poorly.

One of the biggest debates in the teaching of history is less about what constitutes an expert historian and more about when one should introduce complicated ideas like the ones Baldwin is identifying to novice learners. In other words, history is seen as a kind of a club in which you have to pay your dues before you can become a member. To be sure, there is a difference between novices and experts, but when are the novices allowed to try to do the things the experts know how to do on a very high level?

Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Virginia,  is someone whose work always interests me because he looks at the acts of cognition that a learner employs in creating meaning. He goes beyond more traditional dictums passed out by teachers to just "work harder" and delves into strategies that are based on the cognitive strengths that a person possesses. However, in his recent book, Why Don't Students Like School?, he comes down on the side of not letting novice learners into the game of history that experts play too quickly. He writes, "A more modest and realistic goal for students is knowledge comprehension. A student may not be able to develop his own (historical) theory, but  he can develop a deep understanding of existing theory. A student may not be able to write a new narrative of historical fact, but she can follow and understand a narrative that someone else has written." He continues by comparing expert historians to expert tennis players, "In the same way expert tennis players (like expert historians) spend most of their time during a match thinking about strategy and trying to anticipate what their opponent will do. But we shouldn't tell novices to think about strategy; novices need to think about footwork and about the basics of their strokes."

Willingham would have people gain the necessary background knowledge that experts have before allowing them to play the game. This is, in fact, the way many history classes are taught; learn the material through a series of drills so that you may hope to be allowed to play the real game of history later in college.

But the fact of the matter is we need to let novices play the game of history earlier rather than later precisely because of what Baldwin illuminates in the quote above-- "People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them." In daily life, this principle is one that makes all the difference in how you understand the situation you are in. If you don't practice it, and deeply understand its implications, there are often serious consequences.

Most recently, Barack Obama sounded much like an expert historian (and memoirist) when he was trying to explain the aftermath of the court decision in Sanford, Florida.
--> "You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.  Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.  And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store.  That includes me.  There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.  That happened to me -- at least before I was a senator.  There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.  That happens often.
And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.  And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.  The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws -- everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.  And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case."

One of the things that was not surprising to me, given what I have heard from President Obama in other settings, was something that did seem to surprise news commentators. They noted how "remarkably personal" his talk was. It almost seemed to these commentators as if the historical was objective and the personal was subjective. But as I wrote about in the last blog post, from an experience-based point of view-- history is public memoir, and memoir is public history. Our public and our private lives are both influenced by history because history is most fundamentally the stories we tell ourselves about the past. The two are intertwined in our daily lives and we make decisions all the time based on Baldwin's principle--"People are trapped in history; and history is trapped in them." And that is why experience-based history is so important to both novices and experts.

We really have no choice about whether to be historians, only whether we are conscious that we are "doing history" whenever we act. And whether we will be historians trying to be as expert as we can be.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

How Can We Create Experience-based History? : Part II

Almost to the day three years ago I presented some ideas on the topic, "How Can We Create Experience-based History?" That particular blog post explored the different mental models that people who are not historians hold about the nature of being an historian. At the end of that post I asked what some of the implications might be for making history more experience-based and less a forced march through random dates and facts dominated by short term memory practice.

Three guiding hypotheses emerged:

1) History is NOT the past; it is the stories we tell ourselves about the past. 

2) History, therefore, occurs in the PRESENT not in the past; history is our "authoring" of the past.

3) "The past isn't dead; it isn't even past." --William Faulkner

One of the things I love most about teaching where I do is that I am given a free reign to experiment and explore. So, for the past three years I have looked at these three controversial ideas as a basis for having my students think like historians. But it is more than just wanting them to think like historians by looking at their world and the past; I wanted to find the intersection of their world and themselves. 

I started by asking them to create metaphors for their previous understandings of studying history. Many of my students come from all over the world and from very different kinds of school systems, so I wasn't sure what to expect. The results were remarkably varied. Students wrote things like, "History has been like having a shopping cart and the whole grocery store and a short period of time and you run through and throw things in the basket as fast as you can--but you don't know how much any single item is worth. You then check out with everyone else that was doing the same thing and someone totals up how much the stuff in your basket is worth. The person with the highest total wins." (Remarkably, this student had never heard of one of my favorite shows growing up -- Supermarket Sweep.) Clearly, running through the market might be fun, but the checkout would be anxiety producing.

I came across a line from E.L. Doctorow while I was reading his work of historical fiction, Ragtime. Doctorow wrote, "There is no fundamental difference between history and fiction; they are just different forms of narrative." This was reminiscent of what Roland Barthes had been maintaining when he concluded that the notion of "objectivity" that historians want to claim in their voices "turns out to be a particular form of fiction." Doctorow continued his claim in an interview in the Atlantic, "Historians research as many sources as they can, but they decide what is relevant to their enterprise and what isn’t. We should recognize the degree of creativity in this profession that goes beyond intelligent, assiduous scholarship."  The historian side of me struggled with this for quite awhile because I was not willing to give up the idea that fiction writers could simply imagine things to be true without having to worry about whether they happened. Historians could not do that. In that sense, I felt there was a fundamental difference between history and fiction, and I needed to embrace that difference.

And then in Vivian Gornick's book The Situation and the Story I read, "But memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through he recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader come to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened." This description sounded more like what I was doing in my own historical writing and what I wanted from my student's work.

I began to reflect on all of the strategies and techniques that the memoirist/historian uses to make that narrative happen.  In the back of my mind I heard Aldous Huxley reciting, "Experience is NOT what happens to you; experience is what you DO with what happens to you."

In Patricia Hempl's memoir, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory  she writes, "The big fiction advice is 'Show, don’t tell,' but this is not what memoir writers are embroidering on their pillows and sleeping on. It’s instead 'Show and Tell.' It’s the idea that you can’t tell unless you can show, but you don’t just show. You have to talk about it. You have to somehow reflect upon it. You have to track or respond to it, this thing that’s happening. And in the intersection of these two things is the excitement we feel about this genre. Too much show and, 'Why aren’t you writing fiction?' Too much tell and, 'I’m  not going to listen to you because you’re boring.'" History shared with memoir this fundamental characteristic--they were both SHOW AND TELL.

Excited by these ways of thinking about history, I began to use the following list (in no particular order) of suggestions - as the basis for trying to teach students how to create history :

-       select events – using analytic and intuitive techniques--that seem significant
-       assign meaning and significance – give those events weight(they cannot all be of equal weight)
-       keep your goal in mind: achieve insight and un-cover wisdom
-       know that this will be a process of discovery not pontificating on something you already know
-       the historian/memoirist has a need--articulate in precise terms what your particular need is
-       pick beginnings and endings carefully – consciously frame the events
-       choose the “container” with care--what will be the organizing principle of your narrative?
-       use the elements of fiction (setting, characters, climax, conflicts) to create your narrative
-       know your bias – you must be aware of yourself as an author--self-implicate with aplomb
-       immerse yourself in that time in the past (music, places, pictures)
-       do your research on this time period – what sources would be essential to include?
-       create a narrator and know their characteristics--you are not simply a reliable reporter
-       Show AND Tell

 I also began to invite memoir writers--Lee Stringer for Grand Central Winter and Danzy Senna for Where Did You Sleep Last Night: A Personal History--to class to discuss how they created memoir or, in Danzy's even more relevant phrase, "personal history." And then the students would craft their own "personal history/memoir" and we read each other's creations and noticed how they had been constructed using the techniques listed above.

I came to the view that history can be seen as “public” memoir... and that also means that memoir can be seen as “private” history.  

To be sure, all this attention to narrative construction put me a month "behind" in terms of covering the material of this American history course, but there was a remarkable transformation in the way in which my students read and asked questions. The most noticeable change was an increased interest in historiography ("the history of history" seen by looking at what an historian has written through the lens of the time she was writing in) and collecting competing accounts of the same event. In short, they went "meta." But, at the same time, they began to question the creation of whatever they read and assume that the author had made choices of data without being explicit about the criteria for those choices. In short, they went "inside" what they were reading. One of the things that I need to think about in terms of a principle of why some learning becomes "deep," or "transformational," or "experiential" is whether it always involves this rising above to go "meta" as well burrowing in to get "inside." Is that, in fact, part of how we make our own lives experiential?

I knew there was some paradigm shift when I read this student's observation and metaphor at teh end of the year about the work we did in class on being historians: "Playing history is kind of like playing Scrabble but you have this infinite number of pieces. And you can only select a certain number of letters--but some of them you choose and some of them seem to choose you (but it feels right). You look at all the pieces and you start to see some words you could create from the pieces that seem to fit the board. But you have to be careful to see if you are really just making up a word, or if it really exists. But then, sometimes, you have to make up a word because it is correct even though it doesn't exist. Compound this with everyone else around you playing on the same board, but with different pieces. Sometimes, it is just chaos." Hopefully, transformative chaos.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Final Precursor to Empathy: Not-Knowing

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I have not had the courage to suggest that "practices wondering with aplomb" go on the CITYterm skills checklist, but we do have another skill within the "Habits of Learning" category that is called "embraces confusion and explores not-knowing." While wondering is a practice that most students have some familiarity with from when they were younger, "not knowing" is something that terrifies many of them every day. Obviously, this idea of school as a place where you are supposed to know things (and get punished if you don't know them) goes back to the very early posts of this entire blog, and to the importance of the DKDK zone as a basis for experience-based learning.

What Emily (composite) and I discovered as we talked about her anxious feelings about practicing being empathetic was that Emily had an extraordinarily high fear of "not knowing" that was inhibiting her ability to dare to enter into someone else's experience. In short, she could be sympathetic and even enjoy that experience because she was sure that what she was feeling was accurate. But, when she was being asked to imagine what someone else was feeling and how they were constructing their world, she was paralyzed by her fear of "not knowing." What were the premises and assumptions at the base of that other person's world? How could you see implicit ones from their actions and hear them in their language? What were the foundational myths that this person believed in? What metaphors could you construct that they would agree that they lived by? What were the questions that preoccupied them most deeply? And, at the heart of it all, how could you be sure you were right? Wasn't this empathy practice just a complete, random shot in the dark?  

The more I listened to Emily the more I was  reminded of the poet John Keats' idea of "Negative Capability." In a letter to his brother in 1817 Keats was wrestling with the idea of creativity and trying to figure out why someone like Shakespeare (whom Keats greatly admired) should possess the ability to inhabit someone's character in such depth and breadth. He posited that Shakespeare cultivated a "Negative Capability, that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." In other words, in order to understand how someone else constructs the world you have to have the courage to set aside what you, yourself, already know to be true and deeply listen to what, and how, another person constructs their world.

Think about this in your own life for a second. How often do we take in something new we are presented with (a conversation, new data, something we see) and just file it immediately into what I think of an "experiential rut" in our minds? More often than not, we don't really even listen to what the other person is saying when we respond, we think about how what the other person is saying applies to what we already know to be true and then you comment on it. Listen to the conversations around you on a daily basis and see if this isn't the norm.

Roger Schank, who used to teach at Northwestern and writes a good deal about the relationship between story-telling and intelligence writes, "We match new events to stories we already know that are not exactly like those stories. We might, for example, recall an earlier attempt to get a teacher to change a grade while thinking about getting our boss to change his or her salary decision...To do this, we must be capable of thinking of stories we have acquired in he past to see if one of them matches closely enough to what we need to know. Thus, partial matching of one story to another is a critical aspect of human intelligence." By this theory, "the more successfully you adapt old stories, the more creative you are." My point here is that much of our daily life seems to revolve around adapting our own experience to what comes at us day to day, not imagining someone else's stories. We don't empathize, we match up someone else's experience so that it fits our own.

So, when you think about the process of taking on someone else's world view it is a pretty scary proposition--you have to destroy or annihilate what you know in order to experience something new. However, for a less threatening, and wildly humorous, view of the use of negative capability in casual conversation I would urge you to watch Woody Allen and Diane Keaton's interchange in an art gallery in Manhattan.

I realized  that there may be some good reasons for Emily to be anxious about practicing empathy. Empathy appears to be a dangerous business. Keats, in fact, confirms Emily's fears in another letter when he writes, "A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no identity--he is continually in for--and filling some other Body--The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them unchangeable attribute--the poet has none; no identity--he has no self." It sounds a bit like Walt Whitman in stanza 6 of Leaves of Grass or Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, doesn't it? In order to fully understand what someone else understands you have to sacrifice your own self in the sense that you have to be willing to give up what you think is true; you have to enter into "not knowing." It may well be an act of imagination that requires what some therapists describe as an self-annihilation.

As we went through the rest of the semester, Emily and I heard many of the literary authors we met with at CITYterm echo what Donald Barthelme has written in a volume called Not-Knowing, "Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. We have all heard novelists testify to the fact that, beginning a new book, they are utterly baffled as to how to proceed, what should be written and how it might be written, even though they have done a dozen of them before." And the repeated chorus of these authors reiterating the same sentiment began to give Emily some confidence that not knowing was less permanent than it had felt before. She began to see empathy as not about being correct or completely accurate, but rather about getting as close as one could to the desired object. It was like watching her move from doing arithmetic to doing calculus-- from the idea of getting the right answer to the concept of gaining a more precise understanding of something or someone.

At the beginning of the semester Emily's attempts to practice empathy in her own writing looked more like descriptions of other people trying to act like Emily. But once she realized that if she could just put aside the "irritable reaching after fact and reason" that she could come out with a "positive capability" of getting closer to understanding how someone else constructs the world, then her anxiety lessened.

I think I learned from Emily that empathy is an imaginative act in a different way than sympathy and schadenfreude are. I think I also came to appreciate how scary being empathetic can be. And finally, I came to realize that "creative writing" might really be as much about confronting "negative capability" and becoming increasingly comfortable with "not-knowing" as it is about giving people a chance to be creative and express themselves.

What I found perhaps most surprising throughout this investigation is that empathy is usually presented as being a positive embracing of other people's views; it is a pretty warm and fuzzy business the way lots of people describe it. What Emily (and Keats) got me thinking about was how the empathetic act might also necessitate a submerging, perhaps even an aggressive obscuring of the self that might easily be seen as scary, unnerving--even terrifying. The most highly successful programs teaching empathy seem to be focused on the pre-adolescent population. Why is that, I wonder? And would a program for teenagers need to contain a more "Keatsian" element of not knowing?

My task is to now figure out where else I can develop this sense of "not-knowing" as an active precursor to the "positive capability" that might lead to empathy.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Is Sympathy different than Empathy? And Does it Matter?

This past year I had a student who, while working on the empathy protocols I mentioned in an earlier blog post, got me thinking about whether sympathy was different than empathy. And then, of course, whether the distinction between the two concepts was just a matter of semantics and, then, did it matter if there was a difference?

Emily (a composite person) was remarkably good at connecting with other students on a multitude of levels. She was one of those students who truly wants to be kind to other people, and who practices hard at making groups feel good about themselves. In the group self-assessments at the end of each project at CITYterm, she was one of the people who received high praise for making the group congenial and upbeat. She was a cheerleader, to be sure, in that she gave the groups she was part of a greater energy and spirit to help them complete their task. But she had other qualities as well that led her to be quite sensitive to the emotional reactions that other students had to stress and conflict.

What was intriguing was that when we began to practice empathy through the use of protocols, Emily was very unenthusiastic, resistant and surprisingly uncomfortable. I had (wrongly) guessed that she would embrace the protocols because they were designed to gain understanding in ways that were not your typical rational, analytic, lit-crit kind of reading that schools and particularly Advanced Placement English classes specialize in. I anticipated that accessing a more emotional technique would be helpful to her in ways that I documented with other students in an earlier blog post.

Emily and I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out why practicing empathy made her feel so ill at ease and anxious. And I think we came to a couple of realizations as a result that were helpful to her and revelatory to me.

Emily was particularly good at feeling and expressing sympathy. Sympathy, etymologically, is the act of having "fellow feelings" or of joining a "community of feelings." Literally, it is "feeling together." This is, in fact, what Emily was so good at--helping to create a community of feeling that bonds people together. She cared about how other people were feeling, and she was brave enough to put forth how she was feeling as a starting point of connection.

There are lots of examples of different communities of feeling coming together. Sympathy means that you acknowledge that people feel a certain way and that you feel bad for them, and that you care about the fact they are feeling this way. The other person is in a difficult place and you are acknowledging it--it is literally "feeling sorrow or pity for someone else's misfortune." The brilliant Broadway musical Ave Q, for example, contained a hilarious song about how to build a community around a common idea-- "it sucks to be me." It is worth listening to; it will make you laugh.

Ave Q flips this idea on its head as well by having those same characters admit to a secret Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude (depicted hilariously in another song from Ave Q) is "feeling joy at the damage done to someone else" or "pleasure at the misfortune of others." I sometimes wonder whether or not sympathy and schadenfreude are just flip sides of each other. When the better angels of our nature are at work we are sympathetic, but other times we are less generous.

Two of the stories that we used to practice empathy were Junot Diaz's "How to Date a Brown Girl, Black Girl, White Girl or Halfie" and Bernard Malamud's "Angel Levine."  The protagonist in the first is a Dominican-American adolescent male, in the latter it is an aging Jewish man. The first is sometimes aggressively dislikeable, the second more pitiable. I wondered if the fact that these characters lived lives very far from my and Emily's own experiences made it difficult to find ways to connect to them or their situations. Can you feel connection to, or compassion for, people whose lives are unimaginable, who appear hard to know from your perspective? What if you don't know them at all, can you develop skills to be able to imagine what this different life is, what this alien person feels? What I realized from reading these stories with Emily is that having the ability to be sympathetic (as Emily demonstrated consistently in her day-to-day life) is one skill that is important as a reader of books and of life, but that empathy is different skill that may have to be acquired in a different manner for some people. It seems that sympathy and empathy are closely related--kind of a sister act--but that for all their similarities in terms of expressing connection to other people there may be important distinctions.

Empathy, it turns out, is a surprisingly new word, having come into existence in 1858 thanks to German philosopher Hermann Lotze who was trying to explain how the appreciation of art depends on the viewer's ability to project his personality into the viewed object. It was then adopted (or translated) into a psychological term by Edward Bradford Titchner in 1909.  For Titchner, sympathy might be described as a "feeling with" someone, empathy is a "feeling one's way into." For example, Emily could have compassion for these characters, but she was quite unsure whether she could feel their actual feelings. In other words, Emily could feel sympathy for the characters, but projecting herself into either of the characters lives and experiencing those sensations was, as she said, "difficult, uncomfortable and potentially inaccurate." It was this last phrase--"potentially inaccurate"-- that actually gave us the clue that unlocked the reason for why Emily was so comfortable with expressions of sympathy, but blanched at the idea of trying to be empathetic. Exploring that reason--her profound discomfort with "not knowing"-- will be the subject of the next blog post.

For me, I was left to ponder how sympathy and empathy might both be used to form deep bonds of connections amongst people, but why one might be more accessible at certain times and in certain conditions. And, of course, to be thankful and grateful that I get to learn things like this from working with my students.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Wonder: Another Precursor to Empathy

In the last blog post I was exploring the way in which the cultural hostility to ambiguity might make it difficult for the practice of ambiguity. But what spurred those thoughts was my reading of Tony Wagner's new book Creating Innovators. While I love the ideas that Wagner and others support, my focus always comes back to the practical implementation of these grand ideas. What I have found in my own work with empathy is that the concept of ambiguity is actually a key precursor to being empathetic. If I could foster a deepened understanding of ambiguity as "multi-layeredness," then my students made progress in their ability to understand how someone else constructs the world. The study from the University of Toronto confirmed some of my suspicions about why my students had some severe roadblocks to practicing empathy.

Reflecting on these ideas, it occured to me that a missing link that needed exploration was the role of wondering in the development of empathy. Years ago I was trying to design an opening class that would be fitting for an experience-based program that used the world outside the classroom as both a laboratory and classroom.  What we designed was a "wondering and wandering" expedition based on John Stilgoe's book Outside Lies Magic. (I wrote about this in an earlier blog post.) But I can still remember the face of one student, Rose, as we returned from that first exploration to the parking lot and the campus beyond. There was confusion on her face, but also anger and resentment. It was not until later in the day that I had a chance to catch up with Rose to see what was happening. In halting sentences, she explained that she had felt ashamed and inadequate during the class. I was stunned. I thought we had engineered an "expotition" that Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh would have have been proud of only to realize that it had gone terribly, terribly wrong. But why?

Rose explained that she was embarrassed because she had realized that she didn't "wonder about things." In fact, she explained, she would go along almost every day without wondering at all. At first, I was gobsmacked; the idea seemed completely implausible. But as I talked with Rose it appeared to be true. And I have talked to other students since, they have confirmed that they often go through the day without "wondering." As one student said when I asked him as he was about to go into the Academic Dean's office, "Hey, I have two tests today, SAT prep and I probably won't even start my homework until 10 PM. Wondering is not on my to-do list."

As I often do in cases like this, I looked at the etymology of the word wonder--and there it was. Wonder:  "miracle, portent, horror, monster, object of astonishment." None of these things existed in Rose's life. In fact, she had designed her life (or it had been designed for her) to not contain these concepts. Wondering, I realized, cannot be assumed; it has to be explicitly practiced, modeled, reinforced. And frankly, I am not so sure that we aren't as alienated from the idea of miracle as we are protected from horrors. Nonetheless, I realized that adolescents do not have miracles and monsters in their daily lives the way they used to when they were younger.

Practicing "wondering" on a daily basis might seem somehow silly to some, but as Rachel Carson said in her piece for Woman's Home Companion in July 1956, Help Your Child To Wonder, “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 disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy excitement and mystery of the world we live in." Rachel Carson's particular venue for practicing wonder was the natural world on the coast of Maine, but I have found plenty of miracles and monsters in New York City's "urban jungle."

(A side note: The Environmental Protection Agency in its Aging Initiative has instituted the Rachel Carson Intergenerational Sense of Wonder Contest, though I am not sure Rachel had a contest in mind to preserve our sense of wonder.)

After that class with Rose, I began to monitor the assignments I gave my students for their "wonderment factor." What I found about my own teaching was discouraging, but, I confess, not surprising. I did not have that many assignments that explicitly were designed to engage students in the act of wondering. It was much more likely that I would be asking them to explain, defend, critique and assess the merits of of this or that thing. I was quite good, I found, at getting them to be insightful critics with lots of judgments. But I was not very good at getting them to formally, or even informally, practice wondering. Check your own assignments--to both yourself and your students--and see if the same isn't true for you. 

And while I have not had the courage to put "ability to wonder" on the critical thinking skills checklist at CITYterm, I am much more conscious that I need to activate this skill in order to provoke imaginative acts--like empathy. And, surprise, the more you practice it, the better you get at it.

Walker Percy in his novel The Moviegoer insightfully links the idea of wondering and wandering to the warding off of what I think many people succumb to--despair. Theologically, and educationally, despair is something that occurs when you lose faith in the possibility of wonder. Wondering is what one does naturally when one is on "the search."

Percy's narrator, Binx Bolling, posits that "the search is what anyone would undertake, if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be on to something. Not to be on to something is to be in despair...And I have lived ever since, solitary and in wonder, wondering day and night, never a moment without wonder. Before I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion."

Going back to Wagner's book, Creating Innovators, one of its features is a series of case studies of individuals who he hails as being truly innovative in one field or another. For his purposes the people he is examining are those who win every fellowship imaginable and invent the I-phone. Wagner is examining a Lake Wobegon on steroids where not only "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average," but they are the strongest, the best looking and the most exceptional.  Nonetheless, what matters here is the role that "wondering" had to do with his subjects ability to be able to imagine.  He tries to ferret out what he thinks are the conditions that made them innovative, and discovers that family and school have essential positive and negative roles. That is what interests me, the ways in which we can use the classroom, and our students' life experiences, to help them cherish the world of wondering and imagining, and lead them toward the deep waters of empathy.