“Begetting Wonder”: Education in an Age of Irony, by Dr. David Whalen

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“Begetting Wonder”: Education in an Age of Irony
by Dr. David Whalen, Provost and Professor of English, Hillsdale College

The following address was delivered at Founders Classical Academy’s Second Annual Commencement on May 25, 2018. 

 

Thank you for that kind introduction.

Superintendent Terry, Headmaster Dr. O’Toole, members of the platform party, guests, faculty and staff, parents and graduating seniors, it is a genuine honor to be here this afternoon and to participate in these graduation ceremonies with you. Given the eagerness of the graduating class for its diplomas, and given that professors like me, shall we say—talk for a living?—it is incumbent on me to be brief in my remarks today. So, rest assured that I will not go on for more than, at most, two or three hours. In Latin. The Greek part takes a little longer. That’s because it’s entirely in verse. I am of course kidding, but as an English professor, I sometimes torment my students with the suggestion that they write their exam essays in rhyming, iambic pentameter, heroic couplets. The effect of this is not to produce a great deal of spontaneous verse on exams, but rather to make students a bit skeptical as to their professor’s soundness of mind or sincerity. Nevertheless, it is with genuine sincerity and real understanding of the nature of your accomplishment, graduating seniors, that I extend to you my congratulations and very good wishes. This graduation day is a golden one for you, and however forgettable my remarks, I hope you recall this occasion with warmth, with gratitude to those who made it possible, and with honor for those great things you have studied and learned.

This graduation day is a golden one for you, and however forgettable my remarks, I hope you recall this occasion with warmth, with gratitude to those who made it possible, and with honor for those great things you have studied and learned.

Though Michigan is far away, Hillsdale College and Founders Classical Academy of Leander share a distinctive and noble mission. In an age when curricula are frequently haphazard and confused, Hillsdale and Founders consider themselves bound by solemn obligations to hand on a body of learning that has been tested and refined over millennia; to hand on a classical tradition of knowledge and skills proven to be perennially helpful—often even necessary—to the leading of a good life. Such a body of learning is obtained only through serious study. It prepares one for a lifetime of sustained learning and the goodness of heart to cherish what is true. Both of our schools are bound to provide just this kind of education, and to be so bound is a blessing. Consequently, to address the graduating class of 2018 is a special honor, for which I am grateful, and so my remarks today are meant primarily for you, the graduates. I have shared these thoughts with your faculty, elsewhere. But as they touch upon some key conceptions—and even dangers—that are never more important than at this juncture in your lives, I will think aloud about them with you, here.

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I mentioned serious study and preparation. I wonder if you have ever thought about the necessity of rigorous preparation for most things genuinely serious. Your studies have been rigorous and demanding, and probably that rigor has been the thing most evident, most “felt.” But you should know, rigor for its own sake has no meaning, no value. The Marines are not tough for toughness’ sake; they are resilient and determined in order to win battles. Medical school is not rigorous in order to render students sleepless and heavily caffeinated, but, ultimately, to save lives. Hard though it may be to believe—even the difficulty of Latin or Math exams has a purpose.  You may be convinced that they were rigorous for the sake of gratuitous torture. How could anybody remember, or even care to remember, the distinction between the ablative of price and the genitive of value? And what kind of tormented soul would think to place that on an exam anyway?  Though there may have been many times when you graduates reared that you could not in fact survivethe demands placed upon you, the rigors here have not been without a purpose. Your spirited and excellent education was not designed to be tough, or even to gain your admission to a prestigious college. Rather, all this rigor is designed to give formand forceto your intelligence, to train your minds—not just inform them but discipline and train them just as the body is trained on a playing field—so that those minds may apprehend and understand the fundamentals of a world that would otherwise dizzy and overwhelm anyone whose intelligence was left an undisciplined heap of accidental learning.  More than this, however. Your education has conveyed essential—essential and yet in our times perilously neglected—foundations of the very civilization into which you have been born. This matters because you are not mere corpuscular blobs who happen to have opposable thumbs and who wander around possessed of random desires and whims. You are members of something—or rather, a nested set of somethings—the human race, Western Civilization (unpopular as it may be now to say such a thing) and the American experiment of self-government under law, and both you and this civilization depend utterly on your understanding what that membership means. Open any newspaper, read almost any blog, and you will immediately see the consequences of the failure to understand even the most general outlines of human nature or the principles behind our civilization’s traditions of critical scrutiny, of philosophic wonder, of justice, or of liberty. Your rigorous education has introduced you to what and who you are.  The ancient Delphic oracle announced “Know Thyself,” and this remains the charge of the educated man and woman. Even that arcane matter of a price/value distinction in Latin grammar reveals something of what you are, or at least something about the world you have been thrust into. The ablative case tends to throw light on the separateness or distinction between things, while the genitive tends to emphasize the closeness of or possession of things. In other words, the price of something is real, but it is separate from the thing. The value of a thing is also real, but it is in the thing itself. Ask your parents how much you cost, then ask them how precious you are. The answers will be different. So maybe such a test question matters after all, and all those quizzes and tests you took, all those papers, all those attempts to read your faculty’s minds and give them what they are looking for, then—has done much more than get you into some college or onto some career path. It has set you on your way to essentials in your own humanity and culture. Not a bad day’s work–to borrow from T.S. Eliot—“before the taking of a toast and tea.”

You are now in a transition from the world of largely compulsory education and the supervision proper for a minor, to a world where higher education is voluntary, and a kind of autonomy and comparative independence marks daily life. It is customary on occasions such as these, then, to offer some counsel, exhortation, or advice meant to be weighty and significant. It is no sin of cynicism to admit that this is also the point at which I run the greatest risk of putting you to sleep, of making your parents look at their watches, and of lulling the faculty and staff into the stoic wool-gathering of people who are courteous, but bored. But as many of you will be entering into higher education—and all of you will be entering the first stages of adulthood—there are two things in particular I might mention, even at risk of lapsing into a snore-worthy exhortation.

 

 

Ever since the development of “cool”—that unflappable detachment coupled with mild cynicism some seventy years ago—a kind of ironic disposition toward the world has come to be regarded as the sure sign of sophistication and intelligence.

For the last seventy years or so, the cultural coin of the realm, the quality considered most immediately telling of one’s status as adult, educated, and sophisticated, is irony. I do not speak of some mere trick of literary art. Ever since the development of “cool”—that unflappable detachment coupled with mild cynicism some seventy years ago—a kind of ironic disposition toward the world has come to be regarded as the sure sign of sophistication and intelligence. You have been spared that, I am sure, at Founders, but it is particularly true, most dangerously true, in the halls of higher education, where intellectual culture is often marked by a deep habit of skepticism about anything traditionally regarded as good or great. In fact, this habit of skepticism extends to nearly everything except, ironically, itself. Skeptics are rarely skeptical about skepticism. So, a profound intellectual habit of skepticism—not to be confused with the virtue of critical scrutiny—but skepticism, combined with this cultural idol of ironic detachment, has proven seductive, and corrosive. It has resulted in an academic and popular culture at once mistrustful of many ordinary virtues yet at the same time possessed of lock-step adherence to pre-packaged opinions about questions of the day. I paint with a broad brush, to be sure, but many of you will encounter and have to face precisely that of which I speak. You will rapidly sense that the price of admission into the ranks of the intellectually or culturally approved is adoption of ironic detachment combined with adherence to the proper opinions. Recently, a prominent scholar from a prestigious university attended a Convocation of Hillsdale College and, after the ceremony was over, with tears in her eyes, she gave the College’s president a hug, saying, “Thank you for this. You know, we have these ceremonies, too. But they are all ironic.” Academic irony evacuates such events of their meaning, rendering them parodies rather than celebrations of academic purpose. Outside the halls of the academy, irony takes on slightly modified forms such as the cock-sure appearance of near-complete self sufficiency, the cool superiority so glorified by Hollywood, but whether in the academy or out, all too often irony is king.

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I point this out not simply to caution you graduates as to a subtle yet pervasive feature of contemporary culture, but as prelude to an exhortation. Irony is a magnificent literary tool and it participates in the artistic enactment of beauty. So, irony can make for great literature, but it does not make for a great life. As a habit of thought or a habitual disposition, it actually inoculates the mind and heart precisely against the fundamental human passion that makes all the greatest learning and the deepest abiding wisdom possible—the passion of awe or wonder. Indeed an ironic life seems to inoculate one against many of the richest human passions—gratitude, earnest love, untrammeled joy. But it seems to interfere, at a root level, with the very thing that education and institutions of learning exist to do, and the very thing that adult life and wisdom is meant to embody: comprehension and love of a reality rich even beyond our powers to describe.

 

The driving force of human learning, of wisdom, of understanding, of all the things that Founders exists to propagate and institutions of higher learning exist to deepen, is precisely our capacity to wonder.

The driving force of human learning, of wisdom, of understanding, of all the things that Founders exists to propagate and institutions of higher learning exist to deepen, is precisely our capacity to wonder. This is because when we wonder we then seek to understand, to learn. By ‘wonder,’ however, I decidedly do not mean curiosity—an itch to know something one often has no need to know, nor the more sinister desire to master things simply in order to exert power over them.  Rather, I mean that elemental emotion experienced when we behold something vast or profound, something beyond our complete understanding, something mysterious. Philosophers and poets tell us that, in fact, this feeling of awe or wonder is a species of fear. This makes sense when we consider that fear is the result of any confrontation with something great and beyond our comprehension. Wonder, however, is a pleasant or desirable “fear” because it accompanies those encounters that, even while intimidating, perhaps, nevertheless seem to be invitations to enter, to learn, to ponder and contemplate the very thing so poorly glimpsed or feebly understood. Whether the thing encountered is quantum physics, the Grand Canyon, the stars of the Milky Way glimpsed in their full splendor far from the interfering lights of the city, or even things like our own mortality, the bewildering sacrificial love of a spouse, or a parent, or perhaps most mysteriously, the bewildering sacrificial love of a complete stranger, the result to a mind not numbed by ironical detachment, is wonder. It is a kind of fearful desire to comprehend an overwhelming thing, to accept the dimly apprehended invitation to contemplate or enter into an elevated, compelling, even ennobling facet of reality or the world.

 

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In the east and in the west, among philosophers, religious writers, poets, historians, and innumerable scientists, wonder has been hailed as the engine of all genuine learning and all searing wisdom. Without wonder, learning is just so much hoop-jumping, a tedious, tortuous exercise. Without wonder, life in the world is an endless cycle of routines and deeply dissatisfying, apparently aimless practices. In a deceptively simple poem, one of the greatest poets of wonder, William Wordsworth, affirms:

My heart leaps up when I behold

 A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is the father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

If this were an English class, I would stop to remark upon the historical context of the poem, the implied meaning of its rhyme scheme, the deliberate echo of nursery rhymes in its prosody and tone and the reason Wordsworth uses a nursery rhyme to frame a serious, even solemn affirmation. But, fortunately for you, this is not a class, and there will be no quiz. Yet the poem, for all its simplicity, contains a hint of warning, a poet’s “canary in the mine shaft” sense of an impending change in the culture that will render this awe, this leaping up of the heart, devalued and disdained. His insistence on remaining susceptible to wonder is that of one who perceives a threat to the cherished capacity for awe. Numb that awe, says Wordsworth, and one loses not the naïve and reckless feelings of childhood, one loses something essential for the adult—the wonder-driven capacity to recognize greatness whether of beauty, or wisdom, or noble character. This wonder-driven capacity is taken up by another poet in another poem, whose speaker describes himself as “yearning in desire/ To follow knowledge like a sinking star,/ Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” The alternative to a life alive to wonder, he observes with dread, is one that merely hoards, and sleeps, and feeds—a savage life. And, I’m afraid, this life is all too characteristic of our times.

The alternative to a life alive to wonder is one that merely hoards, and sleeps, and feeds—a savage life. And, I’m afraid, this life is all too characteristic of our times.

Whatever gave rise to the culture of irony, its most perilous consequence is the evaporation of our natural tendency to marvel at magnificent yet mysterious things. It evaporates the tendency because magnificence simply does not register with the ironically detached, and for the skeptic, well, mystery has no attraction. Thus, higher education in particular is undermined in an ironic world, as its reason for being is suddenly sapped. But all of adult life, without wonder, is something less than adult, something less than fully human. As your parents well know, adulthood finds one fighting a sea of troubles and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” to borrow from Hamlet. But as your parents likely know as well, grim prognostications of stormy adult weather are half-truths at best. Minds and hearts susceptible to wonder suffer slings and arrows like every other adult, but that is not all they do. They also marvel, they desire, they detect the invitation to enter into mysteries and understand deeper and deeper truths about everything, including the human experience of both slings and arrows, and beauties and goods.

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This, then, comprises my exhortation. Appreciate literary irony, but do not attempt to live ironically. Remain—or become—susceptible to wonder and awe, not for sentimental and anti-intellectual reasons but for reasons quite the reverse. Wonder is to be cultivated because it is the necessary antecedent to all genuine intellectual growth, and essential for an adult life lived intelligently, comprehensively.

Wonder is to be cultivated because it is the necessary antecedent to all genuine intellectual growth, and essential for an adult life lived intelligently, comprehensively.

I should hasten to say explicitly what was implied just now. Wonder allows us to enter more deeply into those things that inspire gratitude, or love, or joy. That includes things like graduation. And while in itself a graduation may not be mysterious, what it signifies certainly is—your embarkation upon adult life. It represents your formation of mind and heart for a life not of compulsion but of ready wonder and the steady deepening of wisdom. It would not do to approach this ironically. It is too properly joyful. In that joy, then, I again offer my congratulations to you, the graduating class, to your parents and families, and to the faculty and staff. Together, you have all done something remarkable and rare, “some work of noble note, . . . not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.” My heart does indeed leap up, and I wish you all Godspeed. Thank you.


*The title of this speech is a reference to Leontes’ lines in Act V Scene I of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale:

“O, alas! I lost a couple, that ‘twixt heaven and earth

Might thus have stood begetting wonder as You, gracious couple, do. . . . “


Dr. David Whalen obtained his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in English from the University of Kansas. Prior to joining the Hillsdale faculty in 1994, he taught at the University of Kansas and Belmont Abbey College. Dr. Whalen has received a Salvatori Fellowship from the Heritage Foundation and a Weaver Fellowship from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He was also awarded the Daugherty Award for Teaching Excellence from Hillsdale College.