I Wonder Who’s Curious Today?

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I wonder how many great novels have started out with these two words: “I Wonder?”  Ok, I am curious, so I will find out.  “Google, how many great novels have started with the words: ‘I wonder’?”   Well, I found “Wonder” a great book about children who are different and Natalie Merchant’s beautiful song “Wonder” about the same subject, but no list of great novels.  I will try again: “Novels beginning with the words ‘I wonder’.”

Wow, now I have found a list of some interesting books.  Foremost among the list of books is “I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey: by Langston Hughes.

In I Wonder as I Wander, Langston Hughes vividly recalls the most dramatic and intimate moments of his life in the turbulent 1930s.

His wanderlust leads him to Cuba, Haiti, Russia, Soviet Central Asia, Japan, Spain (during its Civil War), through dictatorships, wars, revolutions. He meets and brings to life the famous and the humble, from Arthur Koestler to Emma, the Black Mammy of Moscow. It is the continuously amusing, wise revelation of an American writer journeying around the often strange and always exciting world he loves.

Now I am getting somewhere.  Although sadly, Mr. Hughes stole the title of my proposed next book.  But I will let it go.  I am sure I can think of another title.  But the point that I am thinking about is that wonder and curiosity is or should be the essence of our lives.  “Once upon a time” is probably the most popular starting words for many stories, but I propose that “I wonder” should be the start of any journey.  More stories need to start with “I Wonder.”

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I wonder why they do not?  I think I know.  Schools do not encourage wonder and curiosity. Schools encourage learning the right answers to pass tests.  Society does not encourage wonder and curiosity.  How many times have you heard “Curiosity killed the cat?”  Of course, the retort is “And satisfaction brought it back.”  But there is already the societal warning that curiosity can kill you.  Consider one of the most famous anti-heroines in history and her story about wonder and curiosity.

debfcabe3a329e58d451650b7bbe3120653267d4r1-299-371v2_uhqPandora was the first human woman created by Hephaestus on the instructions of Zeus.  Pandora was a curious woman.  She was given a jar or box by the conniving Zeus with all the evils of the world.   Being a woman (sexism at its earliest) she could not resist peaking in the box.  So she opened it and inadvertently allowed all the evils within lose upon the world.  The only thing that did not fly out of the box was the spirit of Hope which remained in the box when Pandora put the lid back on.  Thus to this day, our world is full of evil but balance always by the ever-present Hope that things will be better.  Nothing could be more fitting than Hope for the times we live in today.

Here is a great song to listen to about Pandora’s Box by David Francey

Now, I have been teaching since 1975, on and off. I have taught every grade from preschool, to elementary school to high school and up though grad school.  There are trends and fads in teaching like in business and society.  Many argue every year about what the “core curriculum” of a school should be.  Some say math is essential, some say English is essential.  Some want civility to be added to the curriculum and some are still fighting over the dreaded “Sex education.”

One of the most popular subjects today is “Critical Thinking Skills.”  Every single teacher in America believes that “Critical Thinking” should be part of every curriculum yet less than five percent of any curriculum is allotted to these skills. There simply is not enough time to teach everything that people want to see taught.  Particularly, when we have standardized tests to prepare for and a believe that what was good for the Greeks and Middle Ages is still valid today.

Here is a great song for the curious:  “Be Curious” with English lyrics by Humood Alkhuder

I could leave every one of these subjects behind.  It is my belief that schools should only teach one thing.  That thing would be “wonder and curiosity.”  I doubt if anyone would agree with me.  I can hear the arguments now: “Schools must prepare children for life.”  “Schools must prepare children for jobs.”  “Schools must prepare children for society.”

Young Child looking through Magnifying Glass

Just think for a second.  What if schools actually did teach children to be more curious?  What if they taught children to wonder about the world, to wonder about life, to wonder about people?  What would anyone imbued with a sense of wonder be like?

5 Benefits of Being A Curious Person by Leigh Weingus

  1. It can strengthen your relationships.
  2. It can help protect your brain.
  3. It can help you overcome anxiety.
  4. It correlates with happiness.
  5. It can help you learn pretty much anything.

You will find many articles about the virtue of curiosity on the web.  You will also find many of the components of curiosity.  Whether or not we can teach curiosity is perhaps another issue.  I have seen little in my many years of education that show we have the desire or knowledge to teach children to be curious.  If anything, I think curiosity is an innate trait which rather than nurture we do the best to kill.  Children ask fewer and fewer questions as they progress through our school systems.

‘Schools are killing curiosity’: why we need to stop telling children to shut up and learn – The Guardian

Imagine if you will that kids were not taught answers but were taught questions.  Anyone who has ever raised a child knows that they are the most curious little creatures on the face of the earth.  But right from childhood on, we do our best to extinguish this innate curiosity.

Group of Elementary Pupils In Classroom Answering Question

Imagine if kids who asked, “who made the world?” or “why do I have to do that?” were given the quest to investigate and come back with their own opinions.  Imagine if children who asked, “why are some people racist?” or “why do people hurt other people?” were told “Well, I don’t really know, but can you research this and come back and tell the class what you have found out?”

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Imagine if we had leaders who asked more questions and looked more to experts to help solve social problems rather than political polls.  Imagine if politicians were curious about life and wanted to explore life rather than control it.  Imagine if stories written in newspapers and the media were less biased and more honest about what is known and what is not known.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.  — —”Old Man’s Advice to Youth: ‘Never Lose a Holy Curiosity.'” LIFE Magazine (2 May 1955) p. 64” — Albert Einstein

A Simple Man Meets Faust:

In this world of juxtaposition and dialectical opposites, there does not seem to be any two individuals who could be further apart than Ricky Van Shelton’s Simple Man and Goethe’s Faust.  However, looks and paradigms can often be deceiving.

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A Simple Man (since we don’t know his actual name he will remain a “Simple Man”) is a good old country boy.  We presume he is a blue collar worker, never went to college and probably does some hard manual labor.  He loves to hunt, fish and drink with Bubba, Billy Joe and the other guys.  He is everyman’s down to earth guy.  He does not worry about the future but takes one day at a time.  His thoughts are more likely to meander around his next fishing hole than to try to plumb the meaning of the universe.

faust in study

Faust for all apparent purposes has not a thing in common with a Simple Man.  Faust is complex, morose, introverted, elderly and a true intellectual. No doubt Faust went to Oxford or some high class German Academy.  He ranked not only first in his class but first in every academic endeavor he ever undertook. He went on to become the most esteemed Doctor of Philosophy in German and European history.   He loves to read, write, compose and publish esoteric treatises on the nature of the universe and the meaning of reality.  Faust is first among thinkers and intellectuals.

Well, there you have it. Two diametrically opposed male personalities.  A Simple Man and his mirror image Faust.  But beware!  Appearances can be deceiving. Things may not always be as they seem.  Could it be that Faust and a Simple Man have more in common than you would think?  Follow me as we examine a dialogue between a Simple Man and his wife and a dialogue between Faust and Mephistopheles.  Note similarities.  Note differences.  A Simple Man wants to find peace of mind and his “baby” does not seem to understand his real needs.  Mephistopheles finds Faust also distraught and agitated.  Despite Faust’s soaring intellect, he is unhappy with his life and the success he has achieved.  He responds to Mephistopheles, the devil, who purports to be able to give Faust the happiness he desires.

country guy with woman

A Simple Man: (Lyrics and Music by Ricky Van Shelton)

I don’t know why you wanna start with me

I ain’t done nothin’ far as I can see

And I’m worn out from working too hard

Why don’t you give me a break.

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Faust:  (Music by Gounod, Lyrics by Goethe)

All to know, all in earth and heaven.

No light illumines the visions, ever

thronging my brain ; no peace is given,

And I linger, thus sad and weary,

Without power to sunder the chain

Binding my soul to life always dreary.

Nought do I see! Nought do I know

  • Both men are worn down and worn out.  Both are feeling hopeless.

 A Simple Man:

I know that lately things ain’t been so good

I’ll make it up just like I told you I would

But I’m tired and I wanna sit down

To ease a sore backache

Faust: 

Again the light of a new day !

O death ! when will thy dusky wings

Above me hover and give me rest?

  • Both men want peace and rest

frying pan

 A Simple Man:

You say you’re having trouble figuring me

I don’t believe I’m such a mystery

Baby what you get is what you see

I am a simple man

I wanna a job and a piece of land

Three squares in my frying pan

Don’t seem so hard to me to understand

Faust:

Cursed be all of man’s vile race !

Cursed be the chains which bind him in his place!

Cursed be visions false, deceiving!

Cursed the folly of believing!

Cursed be dreams of love or hate !

Cursed be souls with joy elate.

Cursed be science, prayer, and faith!

Cursed my fate in life and death!

Infernal king, arise!

  •  Science, prayer and faith cannot provide the peace each man requires.  Faust has given up on intellectual solutions while a Simple Man still believes in the joys of work, land and food.

 A Simple Man:

You say you got some things to talk about

A lot of problems that we need to work out

But we just end up fighting

Why don’t you give it a rest

I don’t know what else I can say to you

I’m doing everything I know to do

And I can’t give you anything more

When I’m giving my best

faust with woman

Faust:

I sigh for thy kisses,

Its love I demand!

With ardor unwonted

I long now to burn ;

I sigh for the rapture

Of heart and of sense.

  •  What both Faust and a Simple Man really want is love.

country boy in bed

 A Simple Man:

You say you’re having trouble figuring me

I don’t believe I’m such a mystery

Baby what you get is what you see

I am a simple man

I wanna place I can lay my head

Soft woman and a warm bed

A little time off before I’m dead

I’m just a simple man

Faust:

But implore in vain.

Let me thy hand take, and clasp it,

And behold but thy face once again,

Illum’d by that pale light,

From yonder moon that shines,

O’er thy beauteous features shedding

Its faint but golden ray.

  •  Faust is more eloquent but a Simple Man hits the nail on the head.  I just want a soft woman and a warm bed.

 A Simple Man:

You say you’re having trouble figuring me

I don’t believe I’m such a mystery

Baby what you get is what you see

I am a simple man

Faust:

Again the light of a new day !

O death ! when will thy dusky wings

Above me hover and give me rest?

  •  Both the opera and the song leave you with the impression that neither Faust nor a Simple Man obtains the life they want to live.  Something is out of kilter that cannot be set right.  Tragic expectations on the part of both a Simple Man and Faust are never fulfilled in the real world.  Neither books nor hunting, nor ideas nor actions enable either man to find what they are looking for. 

A Zen Master happens to be walking by and overhears the laments of both Faust and a Simple Man. He notes the apparent remorse and confusion of their musings.  He is struck by their sadness and attempts to offer some wisdom which he feels might be consoling.

Zen Master: 

Life cannot be lived through others.  The secret of happiness is to let go of your expectations for happiness and to realize that happiness is only obtained through inner wisdom and not through external ideas or things or people.

You Faust thought that ideas and your intellect could bring you happiness. When this mode failed, you gave your soul up for the immediate pleasures of the world.  You failed in both efforts.

You Simple Man thought that you could escape responsibility for your happiness.  You thought your wife would provide you the succor and tranquility which your lifestyle necessitated. You thought she would be the warm pillow and soft bed who would take care of your weary bones.  You have also failed to find the peace you desired.

Faust:  I am half a man.

Simple Man:  And I the other half!

Zen Master:  Perhaps two halves make a whole.

Time for Questions:

What similarities between a Simple Man and Faust did you find?  What differences did you find?  What if anything surprised you about their thoughts and needs?  Do we think focus more on the differences between people than the similarities?  Would it make a difference in how we view the world if we saw more similarities between people?  Do you think you are very different from most people or very similar?  Why?  How have your differences and similarities affected your life?

Life is Just Beginning.

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