The Freeing Discipline of Wonder

20 02 2007

Individualism and institutionalism:

I pretty much hate “versus” applied to any two things. I choose the -ism suffix to mean anything (not just religion) that becomes dominant dogma, elevating some system of belief or aspect of being to an all-purpose imperative, too much of one good thing to the exclusion of others. The one tool that makes every problem look like it needs a good hammering.

In this sense, individual-ism and institutional-ism are indeed opposing mindsets pitted against each other. Ugh!
. . . So today I’m remembering Mortimer Adler’s oxymoronic definition of education as the freeing discipline of wonder, and wondering myself where learning without schooling can catch the most light without throwing off too much heat, across the full spectrum of individual and institution?

Two books came to mind in this context —
“The Hedgehog, The Fox, and the Magister’s Pox” by Stephen Jay Gould is about reconciling science with the humanities, or how to understand them as an integrated whole, and “The Ant and the Peacock” is about reconciling this seeming paradox in nature: are individuals or collectives favored?

Is home education the single-minded and prickly hedgehog or the lithe, inventive fox? (“The fox devises many clever strategies; the hedgehog knows one great and effective strategy.” )

The Hedgehog/Fox suggests our human tendency to make every question a simple dichotomy between two opposite choices is probably just baggage from caveman decisions like fight-flight, sleep-wake, mate-wait.

I suggest that tendency itself should be evidence against institutionalized education! – look what “school” does to knowledge and wisdom by breaking it up into little disconnected learning “standards” with forced choice right-wrong answers and discrete disciplines. Okay, that’s a whole nother thread, clearly connected though. . .!

The “ant” could be home education in this discussion — insignificantly small, renouncing tooth and claw — but as easily could be schooling, because it lives in the “public-spirited ways of the commune.”

Or is learning beyond school the flamboyant peacock? Cocky, hardy souls renouncing the collective to strut their own path into Harvard, never mind the nattering peahens all about?

The question isn’t simple. It goes deeper than choosing between individual and institution. The only right answer seems to be that unschoolers, indeed all humans, are both and neither, which makes the real trick being able to appreciate the full spectrum of individual and collective characteristics, in all its complexity.

Or one can go for the strange sort of faithful nihilism certain that reality is neither instead of both. I appreciate Christopher Hitchens when he’s biting AND illuminating but not when he forces me to choose between thinking him creative and thinking him destructive.

The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn’t like him all that much. . .Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon.

Put this way, it’s not really Ronald Reagan he finds so irredeemably stupid and useless. It is us.

If every concept is the enemy of its opposite, then we cannot be both smart and stupid. Or both antiwar and prodefense, like Donny and Marie a little bit country AND rock ‘n’ roll.

. . .both sides of the war issue are protesting in town square. The mayor reminds them that they must share the stage. Randy Marsh gets into a rock (anti-war) and country (pro-war) duet . . .

The 2005 Tony winner for Best Musical, “Avenue Q,” introduced a funny AND wicked song demonstrating through jokes on its diverse characters, that “everyone’s a little bit racist” even when we love each other because of AND despite it.

So I prefer these conciliatory books! 🙂
Neither book sets up or takes sides, both books raise whole new lines of inquiry rather than prescribing answers, and both are greater than the sum of their factoids, at their core about beauty, goodness (AND, not OR) intelligence — three things which a reviewer said “especially puzzled Charles Darwin.” Transcendent themes that, as MisEducation is so fond of reminding her readers, echo

cognitive scientist and education professor Howard Gardner’s course of study for reforming public schools, based on truth, beauty and goodness.

Learn these in school and out, AND grow into your own style in whatever ways taste real and right to you, AND satisfy your soul, as this slow food writer did. If your learning inspires others, all the better — but no forcefeeding!

Depending on how the loaf is sliced, my family often seems to find ourselves in a small, abnormal group of two to five percent on one trailing end of some scale or curve. Home educating of course, a few unusual physical/medical things, some test scores, my own educational level, refusing to pick any political party, heck, even being the traditional family of four –biological mom and dad married and living with their own two children — is getting to be a form of (positive) deviance. I think now it’s less than one in three of American households, something like that.

There are other ways to slice the bread where we’re well in the middle of some huge indistinguishable middle or norm. Surely the way we can all have the whole loaf, be all of who we are , all at the same time, is to avoid slicing up human identity in the first place?

ABout all I’ve learned both in school and out, is that everyone’s a little bit deviant AND a little bit normal —
Something else from Adler: “Not to engage in the pursuit of ideas is to live like ants instead of like men.”
Or foxy peacocks, or whatever . . .



3 responses

3 04 2007

Thinking about carving up human identity into discrete component parts like a Chinese menu, the word “quiddity” seems to hold a secret key. It needs a whole essay of its own if I can ever get the tax stuff finished, sigh.

The vivid image connecting in my mind for now is Harry Potter’s Quidditch. Knowing that JK Rowling is classically educated herself and brings all sorts of allusions into that magical, fictional world, could it be that the game of Quidditch is so named because she created it to represent all that is most real abour Harry’s world, his passions and bliss, his holistic identity and all his highest, best striving, all the stories and truths of that “real world” — and all outside the classroom and school walls. Indeed quidditch is a whole world of itself, often in direct conflict with his teachers, homework, schedules?

And I’m thoroughly inspired by these top ten (intellectual?) fouls, can’t wait to write this up as how we clash with each other in public problem-solving:


There are seven hundred Quidditch fouls listed in the Department of Magical Games and Sports records, but most of these fouls are explicit instances relating to the breaking of one of the major rules, and need not be listed in their entirety. There are, however, ten common fouls, named below:

* Blagging: No player may seize any part of an opponent’s broom to slow or hinder the player.
* Blatching: No player may fly with the intent to collide
* Blurting: No player may lock broom handles with the intent to steer an opponent off course
* Bumphing: Beaters must not hit Bludgers towards spectators
* Cobbing: Players must not use their elbows against opponents
* Flacking: Keepers must not defend the posts from behind by punching Quaffles out of the hoops – goals must be defended from the front
* Haversacking: Chasers must not still be in contact with the Quaffle as it passes through a hoop
* Quaffle-pocking: Chasers must not tamper with the Quaffle in any way
* Snitchnip: No player other than the Seeker may touch or catch the Golden Snitch
* Stooging: No more than one Chaser is allowed in the scoring area at any one time

5 05 2008
Unboxing Our Lizard Brains: Can You At Least Think About It? « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Can we creatively and collegially cultivate our personal curiosity to the benefit of ourselves and human society, despite discomfort to our lizard brains? Can we embrace that stretch and move through its wider range until we reach “the freeing discipline of wonder”? […]

28 12 2008
“Wonderful Tradition of Philosophy and Science” « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Adler’s definition of education was “the freeing discipline of wonder.” Religious education seems like an oxymoron then, unless we change our definition of religion to […]

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