Essay: Anders Schinkel about Wonder and Political Education (September 2019)

As I write this I am on my way back from England to the Netherlands.
I will cross three borders.
I am allowed to do so because I carry a certain object, a hybrid of paper and plastic - that is, of tree and oil, of recent and ancient flora - that identifies me as a Dutch citizen, a member of a nation-state recognized by other nation-states.
The customs officers did not recognize me, of course (they don't know me), yet they recognized me, or rather the polity I belong to.
My passport doesn't mention this, but I am a Homo sapiens-Neanderthal hybrid. My hybrid ancestors have roamed the part of the earth we now call Europe for 40,000 years without encountering any borders - without even having the concept of borders. My Homo sapiens ancestors roamed even more widely, for 200,000 years; and Neanderthals moved freely over the surface of the earth for at least 200 millennia more.
Borders of a kind weren't invented until a mere 10 millennia ago, by the first sedentary people (who slowly but surely replaced our mobile Homo sapiens-Neanderthal ancestors); and borders that envelop the earth like an irregular spider’s web, forbidding human beings from walking their planet of birth unhindered, have existed for just a few centuries. Sedentary people distrust their mobile kin. Those who sit on their comfortable backsides now routinely decide whether or not they are willing to make an exception for a particular mobile human being, whether they have a special category for this mobile person: refugee prepared not to remain seated, or useful migrant worker willing to sit down.
Borders are real, but not as real as we think. It is strange to think that the earth's surface was once just what it was - presenting natural obstacles, perhaps, but no artificial ones. It makes one wonder.

Wonder tends to be too readily associated with a childlike, if not childish, attitude; with learning and wanting to learn, but implicitly also with still having to learn.
In my view this ignores other types of wonder, that are not simply a product of unfamiliarity, of the novelty of the world to the person taking it in.
Moreover, in the same stroke it turns wonder into something naive, innocent, harmless; and it denies the seriousness of wonder and the very real relation it has to the world.
It ignores also the crucial role wonder has - or can and ideally should have - in adults' (not least educators') lives. 

With my opening example I attempted to evoke - or at least sensitize you to - a type of wonder that has a much less immediate connection with education than children's inquisitive wonder. (Which is not to say that children's wonder is always of the inquisitive type.) This other type of wonder may have no connection with the novelty of the object of attention at all; just as often it is something so familiar that we barely notice it and rarely if ever think about it. But then, suddenly, and often for no discernible reason, this familiar thing strikes us as utterly strange, as mysterious even.
Perhaps we feel the warmth of the sun on our skin and suddenly realize that this pleasant warmth derives from a sun - not just 'the sun', but a sun, a particular type of object in the galaxy, the centre of our solar system, a seething ball of burning gas, on average ca. 150 million kilometres away from our planet, from you. Or perhaps we zoom in on our skin, magnifying our cells so much that we can perceive the effect of the sun's radiation on the micro-organisms that are at home there. We are not - or not just - individuals, we are ecosystems. How can it be that you are implicated in things on these scales? That one way in which the organization of the universe manifests itself is as your sensuous pleasure? That you are an environment within in environment?
These are not ordinary questions, of course, not questions that need answering. We know the answer, or think we do, or at any rate assume that the question lies firmly within the realm of answerable questions, in which case it doesn't even matter if we know the answer or not - we are not wondering about this connection between ourselves and the sun, we are wondering at it. Our questions merely look like 'normal', (in principle) answerable, questions, simply because that is the form puzzlement tends to take.
Wonder at, deep wonder, or contemplative wonder, is a response to mystery; and it foregrounds, makes us acutely aware of, the mysteriousness of things, which persists despite knowledge, despite all the answers we can think of. As Ronald Hepburn writes, there are various forms of wonder that are immune to dissolution by causal explanation: ‘the persistence of the “fragile”, living beings (…), on the thin habitable zone of the earth’s surface, surrounded by enormous airless spaces’, for instance, may evoke wonder; and while this may partly be dissolved by causal explanations that reduce the ‘surprise-element’ of wonder, what remains is ‘the contrast for perception and imagination between living beings and their cosmic environment, between their sensitivity, sentience, internal complexity, vulnerability and the indifferent and mindless regions around them. This contrast, and the wonder it can evoke, survive the acceptance of a causal account’. Causal explanations ultimately run up against the totality, against the mystery of being as such, why there is something rather than nothing. And wonder at any particular thing - a snowflake, DNA, the 'miracle of birth' - receives its charges from the wonder appropriate to the whole. When we perceive them, not analytically, but as wholes, they exceed our senses and our comprehension. The being of any particular being can never be grasped in its fullness. Deep wonder therefore renders us speechless; we have run up against the limits of understanding, the limits of what we can say. William James said that children are born into a state of 'aboriginal sensible muchness'; in wonder we do not exactly return to such a state, but experience something similar, though with much more cognitive content: the excessiveness of the world, the fact that it spills over any categorization and conceptualization. 

A pragmatic question may arise: what use is such an attitude, or such a mode of consciousness, in our lives and (therefore) in education, oriented as it is to the irreducible mystery of existence, and with its tendency to view everyday life from a cosmic or a microscopic - but at any rate a remote - perspective? A form of awareness that silences us and dissolves all opinions, all points of view? What use is it, I want to ask in particular, in political education?

Isn't wonder - this type of wonder - rather an apolitical, or even antipolitical sentiment or attitude? Isn't it the state of mind that one gets lost in, that dreamers hide in to escape from the world? That was Hannah Arendt's criticism of Heidegger; as Mary-Jane Rubenstein notes, Arendt attributes Heidegger's decision in 1933 to accept the rectorship of the nazified University of Freiburg (which implied an endorsement of National Socialism) to 'an excess of wonder'. According to Arendt the problem lay with Heidegger's 'taking up and accepting this faculty of wonder as [his] abode'. Arendt's concerns were that wonder offered an escape from reality and thus from any sense of political obligation; that it could render one vulnerable to being swept away unthinkingly by charismatic leaders or political movements; that it could alienate philosophers from the world around them; and that it would render them incapable of forming opinions or making decisions. They are understandable concerns, but like Rubenstein I believe wonder nevertheless has significant political potential.

Deep wonder is a mode of consciousness in which we are attuned to the world in a way that differs markedly from our ordinary awareness of the world: our attention is arrested by something that eludes our grasp and yet seems important. The 'object' of attention is central in our experience, we forget about ourselves and any relation the object might have to our desires or intentions. Wonder is a receptive mode of consciousness, rather than an actively seeking or grasping one, it is open to the world - and open also in the sense that the attitude to take towards the object of wonder is as yet not (wholly) decided; hence puzzlement is an important part of the subjective form of wonder. In wonder we (first) experience a break-down of meaning - the everyday meaning of things fall away, and our frameworks of interpretations give out - but often also a hint of a deeper or more encompassing meaning, which wonder may inspire us to seek. 

This brief phenomenological description of wonder contains a number of features that argue against the idea of wonder's supposedly a- or antipolitical nature. Firstly, wonder is characterized by an essential openness towards the world, and the experience of wonder can revive or help sustain our interest in the world. It is world-oriented and world-affirming.
Secondly, wonder is anti-dogmatic and anti-conformist. As Mario Di Paolontonio argued (interestingly also with Arendt) wonder guards against 'thoughtlessness', against uncritical conformism.
Thirdly, due to the breakdown of meaning we experience in wonder, wonder makes us acutely aware of the abnormality of the normal. In Jeremy Bendik-Keymer's words it 'throws a margin of doubt around the normal'. As adults we sometimes wonder at something and then simply get on with our day and immerse ourselves in the normal order of things. To take wonder seriously means to refuse to 'simply' get on with our day. There is nothing normal, nothing ordinary about ordinary life, and to pretend otherwise is an act of violence against reality - and against very real others. Doubt about the normal and awareness of the contingency of the current order are crucial to a healthy political sphere.
Fourthly, and relatedly, wonder is a phenomenon of the limit - we have reached the limits of understanding, and the limits of what we can say - but this limit is also a threshold: beyond it lies the world, with its 'muchness', its excessiveness, and this presents itself as a space of possibility. The world is always more, always other than what we make of it. And this means that our world can always be other than it is. Wonder is the denial of Margaret Thatcher's TINA - 'there is no alternative' - because it shows us that there are always alternatives, and stimulates our political imagination.
Fifthly, wonder is other-acknowledging; and in its more affirmative, morally toned, form, this means that it is non-egocentric and non-reductionist: to perceive another person or another being with wonder means not to objectify it, but to be appreciative of its unique nature and acutely aware of one's inability to grasp the other entirely. This type of wonder at otherness is an important part of the moral sensibility necessary for a maximally respectful and caring politics. Jeremy Bendik-Keymer (interpreting and developing work by Martha Nussbaum) asked a version of the pragmatic question I asked just now: what use is biocentric wonder - wonder at life in all its forms - in the human political sphere? His answer is that biocentric wonder, because it is open to considering other kinds of lives, is helpful to considering the lives of others. Moreover, biocentric wonder that sees our form of striving as one type among many others means that we abstract from particular conceptions of striving (for a good life), and it puts us in a position to consider what is good for all, and in a better position to reason with others. 

So wonder - even and perhaps especially deep or contemplative wonder - has political importance. If so, then it stands to reason that it is important for political education, too. I think that is indeed the case; in fact, there are strong intrinsic connections between wonder and education. If anything, education should open up the world to children (and adults), and wonder is probably the purest form of openness to the world that we can experience.

More practically, political education - nowadays usually (and revealingly) called 'civic education' or 'citizenship education' - still tends to be mostly political socialization, making children acquainted with the ways of our political world and adjusting them to it. But education, if it wants to be worthy of the name, is inversely related to the extent to which we take things for granted, or accept them on authority. Thus it requires wonder, among other things, to defamiliarize the familiar. Common political education, however, does nothing to diminish the apparent 'naturalness' of things; insofar as it aims at understanding of why the current order is the way it is, it does so in a way that shores up its inevitability.
Political education would begin by making the phenomena of political order and of politics as such objects of wonder, and one way to do so could be by highlighting their recent (in evolutionary terms) appearance on the face of the earth. 

Let me end with another example to show the value of taking wonder's wide perspective - an example which at the same time suggests there's an important role for parents here, not just schools. One of today's major concerns is (or should be) climate change. That anthropogenic climate change is going on is something that has been known for at least half a century (and some realized it much sooner than that), but both collective and individual action have been slow. This is in part because of the immensity of the problem, the pure scale at which we are required to think. We cannot perceive climate change directly, we can only experience weather, here and now, and to supplement this we have some memory (the reliability of which is questionable) of weather patterns in our past. Furthermore, so long as we remain within our everyday frame of mind our imagination is highly taxed when we ask it to project an image of what our planet might look like a hundred or a thousand, let alone a hundred thousand years from now.
Wonder - triggered by the knowledge of carrying a few percent of Neanderthal DNA, for instance - is a mode of consciousness that is supremely helpful in this regard. It helps us take the perspective of the deep history of the earth and life on earth, a perspective from which it is much easier to ask - that even prompts us to ask: what strange creatures are we? And what on earth are we doing?

This essay was presented by the author during the LEARN! Annual Conference 2019 (on September 17th).