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.


  1. I'm in total agreement, David. Your last sentence, "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", echoes the reasoning behind my own desire to pursue educational studies and practice. With an eye toward equity, I wonder how educators can foster wonderment and by extension empathy amongst all children, particularly those who have experienced trauma.

    This past year, I was an instructor for Roots of Empathy (, a social-emotional program designed to reduce aggression and increase empathy amongst K-8 schoolchildren. Some of my 3rd graders had "lost" parents to incarceration and drugs (among a host of other types of traumas that children face), as reflected in their drawings and through conversation, and I wonder if they wonder to the same extent as a child who has not suffered trauma.

    Admittedly I am not a child development professional, but I'm just wondering all children who grow up to be adults have the same capacity for wonder? What if the impediment to wonder for you is not a schedule, but survival? Or, conversely, can wonderment constitute survival for some?

    Looking forward to hearing from you, David.


    Samantha (CITYterm F'05)

  2. oh samantha....that is amazing...i have read tons about ROOTS OF EMPATHY...heard great things...though i can tell i don't understand it will have to me sometime...or send me a note

    i think your wondering is a great one....i have no idea...kind of a maslow hierarchy of needs look at the issue....what do you have to have in place??? great question

    here is another...what about adolescents? that is the place where ROOTS can't help me...why don't they try this with teenagers? there must be a is my question to you...the next blog is a key one...i hope to have it out tomorrow..the 17th....aggression is the key word....think in terms of how creation needs that true with empathy? if so, what has to be destroyed? that was something i had some thoughts on this year with students...thanks for reading....and commenting

    keep the faith