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Wonder, Guarding Against Thoughtlessness in Education

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Hannah Arendt has a particular notion of thinking that both is and is not (in her sense of the term) philosophical. While not guided by the search for meta principles, nor concerned with establishing logical systems, her notion of thinking as the examination of “whatever happens to come to pass,” and its significance for saving our world from thoughtlessness, retains and is motivated by the fundamental pathos at the heart of philosophy—wonder. In this paper, I consider the limiting and enabling sense in which Arendt invokes “wonder” for the possibility of thinking. I do so, in turn, to explore what the pathos of wonderment might offer education—an institution charged with cultivating “thinking” and, yet, constantly susceptible to the thoughtless trappings of technocratic jargon and the mechanical logic of assessment, learning processes and social reproduction. Can wonder—the very pathos of philosophy—cultivate a thinking that helps us retain an “unclouded attentiveness” to what is educational in education? Might wonder help us to overcome the thoughtlessness that dulls our attention to what we do to each other through education?

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  1. Arendt goes on in the same breath: “This should be imputed not just to the circumstances of the times and even less to preformed character, but rather to what the French call a déformation professionelle. For the attraction to the tyrannical can be demonstrated theoretically in many of the great thinkers (Kant is the great exception). And if this tendency is not demonstrable in what they did, that is only because very few of them were prepared to go beyond [citing Heidegger] ‘the faculty of wondering at the simple’ and to ‘accept this wondering as their abode’” (1971, n.pag).

  2. While educational literature and teaching manuals often emphasize the importance of “stimulating the student’s curiosity,” they often conflate “wonder” with “curiosity,” treating each as interchangeable terms meaning generally the same type of experience or disposition (see: Opdal 2001). The philosophical tradition has generally kept these two terms apart and distinct from each other. Pursuing and preserving the distinction between these two terms can help us to better appreciate what might be at stake when we try to cultivate wonder in education. Recently Anders Schinkel (2017) leverages the philosophical distinction between wonder and curiosity in order to draw-out an understanding of what he terms “deep wonder,” and its significance for education. While Schinkel’s paper touches on many similar concerns and interests at play in my discussion here, my Arendtian inspired reading of wonder seeks to move away from the “contemplative” (or “deep”) aspects of wonder so as to underscore a more “worldly” or “world making” sensibility of wonder. I want to thank Anders Schinkel for a most thought provoking conversation a few years back at the Philosophy of Education of Great Britain annual conference, when I first presented on this work. His work on “deep wonder,” which he presented at that conference, continues to unfold and intrigue me with its careful discussion and many insights.

  3. Etymologically, manners derives from the Latin manuarius, meaning the comportment of the hands and what we do with our hands in the world, in which case, an ethical manner would be approaching the world with ‘open-handedness.’

  4. Drawing on Christian theology, in Intellectual Appetite, Paul Griffiths discusses how wonder can be given depth and explained by our sense of participating and being in the world together. He evocatively writes: “You, as one delightedly surprised by the givenness of things, are a participant in their giver as are all the things that prompt wonder in you, which is to say that your wonder is that of one participant in God directed toward another, or toward an array of others. This necessarily shared mode of being is what makes wonder possible: it provides the always implicit (and sometimes explicit) understanding on the part of those who wonder that giftedness and participation are not limited to oneself but are also shared by all that is” (2009, p. 129). Griffiths’s project is concerned with tracing the virtues and vices in the ways we desire and seek knowledge. His discussion includes intriguing forays on the subject of wonder, and makes a distinction between curiositas (a restless appetite for consuming, owning, sequestering knowledge for oneself) and studiositas (a virtuous appetite for the life of the mind), which seems to resonate with my own work here. However, because Griffiths is concerned with a virtuous disposition (appetite) towards “knowledge,” rather than on the aporias of wonder that withstand our appetite, his intentions fundamentally differ from my own interests in this paper. Still, I want to note that my approach shares the “theological grammar” that Griffiths offers us in his book, in which such grammar revitalizes and brings across the significance and dynamics of forlorn theological terms and sentiments that can lead to a more nuanced and generative way of apprehending the subject under discussion. Somewhat similarly, in this paper I tap into a repertoire of terms and sentiments—such as “gratitude” and “grace”—aligned with the sense of wonder. I do so, not for exegetical purposes, but in order to prompt us to engage (think) with a deep repertoire of associations that give nuance and interpretative life to the sense of worldly wonder. Inflecting my discussion with such terms and sentiments (religious, but also philosophical, via Heidegger, Arendt, and implicitly Derrida) thus allows me to underscore the ethical sensibility that wonder fosters: the necessary attitude and disposition of care that “the world” needs if it is to last across generations. I thank one of the anonymous reviewers for suggesting I consider Griffiths’s book alongside my paper.


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Correspondence to Mario Di Paolantonio.

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Di Paolantonio, M. Wonder, Guarding Against Thoughtlessness in Education. Stud Philos Educ 38, 213–228 (2019).

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