Deep or contemplative wonder allows us to behold the world and society with openness, contingency, and a healthy detachment, posits Anders Schinkel, as he argues for making universities places of wonder.
An unfortunate air of wishy-washiness surrounds the notion of wonder. Search the internet for images supposed to capture the experience and you will come away with the impression that wonder is a fluttery feeling proper to young children chasing butterflies through fields of gold, otherwise indulged in only by hopeless romantics. The problem with this common perception of wonder is that it grossly underestimates the importance of wonder for adolescents and adults, and therefore also its potential importance in higher education (HE).
Another view of wonder has emerged more recently, one that may seem radically opposed to the above, but actually depends on it to a considerable extent. This is the view of wonder as a revitalizing, re-energizing, inspirational experience, wonder as a revitalizing, re-energizing, inspirational experience, a powerful tool that should be part of everyone’s self-help toolkit in these stressful times. I would be the last to deny that wonder can ‘help’ in this way, but I would argue that this view radically mislocates wonder’s (potential) importance. Essential to wonder, and the main reason people’s sense of wonder is worth preserving and cultivating, is that it is other-oriented, directed outward, to the world. To present wonder’s importance in terms of its self-help potential is therefore to miss the point. Below I offer three reasons why wonder is – or should be – important in higher education. But first we need to be as clear as we can be about what wonder is.
What is wonder?
It is commonly thrown on a heap with either curiosity or awe (as advocates of the self-help view do), but there’s a reason we have the word ‘wonder’ as well. It points to a range of experiences that, though itself diverse, is subtly but importantly different from those experiences we commonly express in terms of curiosity and awe. Wonder can be triggered by almost anything, and one can wonder about or at myriad things – though what we might call its latent, ultimate object is always the same: the sheer thatness of things, their bare existence (as instantiated in the phenomenon foregrounded in one’s experience).
Sometimes – and I’m sure many readers will recognise this – when I sit at my computer in my allotted box in a larger concrete container on my university campus, I become acutely aware of the peculiarity and the unlikeliness of the situation. In light of the 200,000-year history of the species of animal that we belong to, finding oneself in this position – making a living by thinking, talking, and writing about education; and spending half, if not more, of one’s working hours sitting down in an ergonomically disastrous posture, interacting with the world not directly, but at many removes – is a curious, remarkable thing. The wonder that this awareness inspires is, ultimately, wonder at the mystery of existence as such; but along the winding road to that final object of wonder, there are many stops: wonder at one’s own life (how did that baby become this adult?), wonder at human societies (the contingency of their forms of order), wonder at human existence (wonder at the possibility of wonder).
Typical of wonder ... is its receptive nature, its openness towards the world, its readiness to encounter the ‘other’ in a non-reductive way
Wonder, and in particular what I call deep or contemplative wonder, is a mode of consciousness in which we become acutely aware of the limits of our understanding, of the fact that the world ultimately defies conceptualisation, and defeats our attempts to tame it with our categories and theories. Understanding – and growth in understanding – is possible, of course; yet the world is always more, and always other than what we take it to be. Typical of wonder, therefore, is its receptive nature, its openness towards the world, its readiness to encounter the ‘other’ in a non-reductive way. At the same time, deep wonder allows us to perceive the world under the aspect of possibility – it is contingent, it could have been otherwise, and so it could be otherwise. In philosopher Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s words, wonder “throws a margin of doubt around the normal.”
Wonder and higher education
These characteristics make wonder especially important today, and not least for higher education. Why today? The reasons are endless. It is by now common knowledge that ‘we’ – current generations of human beings, but actually also our fellow-travellers on this planet – are facing a multidimensional ecological crisis without precedent in (at least) the history of our species. Anthropogenic climate change, itself just one aspect of this crisis, is tied to the relentless expansion of a capitalist economic system that, absurdly, needs to grow forever in order not to collapse. This system is interwoven in complex ways with inequalities in wealth and power, and with various forms of domination along lines of race, nationality, and gender. The system is visibly, and palpably, under increasing strain, and its tensions show not only in economic crises and increasing inequality, but also in political polarisation, fragmentation, and entrenchment. Governments, whether in liberal democracies or other political systems, seem unable to escape from the logic of global capitalism – it is perceived as inevitable: there is no alternative. But when we wonder, we sense, we know that this is not true. We realise that those who believe in TINA (there is no alternative) allow themselves to be imprisoned in the present – and in a blinkered, self-absorbed view of the present at that.
(wonder) opens space to imagine alternative ways of thinking and doing
Here are three reasons, then, why wonder is important in HE, and why HE has a responsibility to encourage wonder:
- What is special about HE is that it has the ability to send people into the world with both highly specialist knowledge and skills and a broad outlook, the last of which is the basis of the wisdom needed to apply that specialist knowledge well. If there is one thing that stimulates the development of a broad outlook, a widening of one’s perspective, it is wonder. Because in wonder the world appears as remarkable, it invites respectful exploration. And because it makes us aware of the contingency of the world – both the natural and the social world – it opens space to imagine alternative ways of thinking and doing.
- The institution of HE urgently needs to wonder at and about itself and its own contribution to current crises. The (pursuit of) growth of HE institutions is directly related to, indeed justified by reference to, economic growth. (Look here for a poignant example.) But since it is no secret what harm economic growth is doing in the world, why does this not make us stop and think: if HE is indeed so important to economic growth, does that not mean it is complicit in wreaking havoc on the earth’s ecosystems, in the extinction of species, in the suffering of millions of people? Is it not facile and self-serving to think that – through its contribution to innovation – higher education will help us achieve the miracle of sustainable economic growth? Is this not an example of thoughtlessness in the sense in which Hannah Arendt used that term, and of which wonder, as philosopher Mario di Paolantonio pointed out, is the opposite?
- Traditionally, universities have been places at some distance from society – and this is actually a good thing when we make sure it is a critical, reflective distance, not a form of world-alienation. Of all educational spaces, institutions of higher education have the greatest potential to be places where dominant views and preconceptions are bracketed, and dogmas – economic or other – are unwelcome; where the otherness of the world is acknowledged, and where we can meet others without reducing them to what we think we know, while at the same time our common humanity and common creatureliness is kept in view. They can, and ought to be, places where truth, not money, is the reigning value, and we accept that it can’t be measured, and that no account of it is final. Universities are still uniquely situated to be places of wonder, and with that comes a responsibility to cherish that opportunity.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.