Society allows children a sense of wonder for only so long. Before they are force-fed at school, children are naturally hungry to learn. But there is no quicker way to kill that sense of wonder in kids than to shove useless facts down their throats.
By Debra Elramey
“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” ~ E.B. White
Young children don’t raise objections to the improbable. They haven’t yet been taught realism and the scientific method as the pathway to knowledge, haven’t yet learned how to be clinical, intellectual, cynical. In their innocence, they still hear the bell and believe that all things are possible. Their world is still a miracle: beautiful, magical.
Mark Twain once said, “We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that the savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we have gained by prying into that matter.” Likewise, children in their raw innocence haven’t yet lost their sense of wonder, that is, until well-meaning but misguided adults kill it with pedantry, then drill, drill, drill until the poor children’s natural awe begins to wane like the moon.
Boring, No Wonder
The one year my son Jesse attended school, he was placed in the Gifted and Talented (GT) program, which just meant he was deemed more capable of taking on extra work, as opposed to those who could only handle the basic essentials. His GT teacher called me aside one day to inform me that Jesse’s IQ test had revealed “genius” status. But I wasn’t to mention this to him, as his ego would inflate.
During that (one and only) school year, his GT class researched various scientific subjects to write about. A chosen topic of my son’s was: What makes a cat purr? It was among the most boring papers I’ve ever read in my life…something about the vibration of the muscles of the larynx and diaphragm, the blood flow to the palate, nerves activated in the voice box….
Contrary to popular belief, the paper stated, cats do not purr because they’re happy, but because the laryngeal muscles make the glottis open and close, which cause the vocal chords to vibrate. Jesse displayed matter-of-factness about the A+ he received on his paper. We never discussed (as far as I recall) what triggers the cat to purr. But this much I know for sure: What makes my cats purr in ecstasy is the gentle stroke of my hand across their fur. Just the sight of me – or any family member – is enough to make their motors run. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Love and you shall be loved. All love is mathematically just, as much as two sides of an algebraic equation.” Of course, cause and effect would be reserved as a different topic at school, since everything must be so dichotomized that the forest can’t be seen for the trees.
Society allows children a sense of wonder for only so long. Before they are force-fed, children are naturally hungry to learn. There’s no quicker way to kill that sense of wonder in kids than to shove useless facts down their throats. Facts they no more care about than a shot in the arm. Facts that may do them more harm than good, as too much boring data destroys natural wonderment, curiosity, and imagination.
I heard a story about two chemists walking along the shore, discussing the properties of water: its freezing point, its boiling point, how solid water is lighter than its liquid form, therefore ice floats…how just before water freezes at its heaviest it sinks, and that circulates the ocean water, bringing oxygen down to plants and animals beneath. Then the two chemists come upon a little girl playing and splashing in the waves. She sees them pondering the water and says, “Come on in, the water’s fine.” One of the chemists looks at the child and says, “The water is fine? What do you know about water?”
Given a choice between learning hard cold facts and exploring life with the imagination, children would choose the latter any day of the week. Ask Albert Einstein, who said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there will ever be to know and understand.” Ask yours truly who, as a child, had an imagination that wouldn’t quit.
Like many children, I was fascinated by the moon. One night, I said to my big brother, “There’s the man in the moon. See his face? He’s watching us.” Of course, being older and more educated than I, he was quick to correct my ignorance. “That’s not the man in the moon, silly. Those lines are clouds. And the moon is nothing but rocks.” All the while I’m thinking, oh yeah? We’ll just see about that. So I took me a little trip to outer space, back when I could still fly.
My only mistake was telling my aunt about it when I returned to earth. In vivid detail, I explained how I’d flown there and landscaped the place because it was overgrown with tangled vines, and how I’d planted a garden of wild roses in every color under the sun. I swore to her that not every square inch of the moon’s surface was made up of rocks, but some parts did indeed consist of green cheese, just as real as the speckled linoleum on her kitchen floor.
My aunt was shocked that any child could fabricate such a boldface lie, and marched straight to my mother and reported the incident to preempt any further such tale telling. Mother was deeply disturbed and promptly applied the rod of correction. They were old school, as depicted by the headmaster in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times. “NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!” Sadly, most schools (and some parents) still reflect this headmaster’s model of utilitarian success by force-feeding facts while banning fancy and wonder.
“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
Not everyone from my aunt’s generation has outgrown their sense of wonder. My friend Jane maintains her childlike awe to this day. We met in a writers’ group a few years back, and every time she came to our meetings she brought her celebration of life with her. It was sort of like show-and-tell when she’d appear with a new poem about the bossy mockingbirds in her yard nestled in the woods; or that violet vamp of spring, wisteria; or admonitions like this: “Believe! Not trusting leprechauns, fairies, or magic is undeniably tragic.”
Thankfully, she has captured her many adventures as a naturalist in a collection of poems and stories in her book Wilding a Tame Heart. Jane adores all things with wings, especially hummingbirds that float free of time. And she still plucks honeysuckle blossoms from the vine and sips nectar from the stem-straws just like she did as a child.
The Wonder of the Moon
Full moon nights find her restless, and she’s drawn out of bed and into the deep woods behind her house. She once persuaded her grandson to accompany her. “At age five, he was a bit awed by it all: the nocturnal choir, the shadows, towering silhouettes…but I felt a connection with the luminous moonlight all melted down by the forest floor. We stood perfectly still and took in the night sounds around us – awesome! It was a different world!”
In contextual learning, the conversation about the full moon sounds like this:
Jane: Did you know that I love you from here to the moon and back?
Stuart: How far is the moon?
Jane: I don’t know right off the bat, but we can find out together. And did you know that a man named Neil Armstrong once walked on the moon? I saw him on TV with my own eyes! Some say it was a camera trick but I don’t think so because I believe we can all fly to the moon one way or another.
Jane never crammed a lesson down Stuart’s throat. She just sang her song of wonder about the moon and he joined in, just as she sang her songs of wonder to her writer friends and we joined in. We didn’t need to know what makes hummingbirds sing to appreciate their magic, the way they dart every which way and grace the air like bejeweled fairies shimmering in the sun and go about serenading the ladies with their musical tail feathers. Spare us the scientific jargon about how the music is produced…how aeroelastic flutter is intrinsic to stiff airfoils like feathers and thus explains tonal sounds common in bird flight. We can research all that if need be. Meanwhile we’ll remain on the lookout for the presence of wonder, and when it comes we won’t explain the magic away with too much detail.
Maya Angelou had it right when she said, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”
In a former life, Debra Elramey taught in public and private schools, a school for the deaf, and community college. Her past work in educational systems taught her what not to do. Now she is an autodidact and life learning advocate, memoirist, poet, writing coach, contemplative, and lover of the simple life. She can be reached on Facebook and Twitter, or visit her blog. This article was first published in Life Learning Magazine.