Headmaster’s Weekly Message

Thoughts from Chapel, the Academy’s morning assembly in historic Fuller Hall


Curiosity and Wonder

This week, we recognized students for academic achievement, as each teacher got to name one student as an exemplar of what we call "academic character". These students are not necessarily the ones with the highest averages; they are those who have shown certain traits that we find admirable in scholars. In the past, I have given this recognition to a student who has shown resilience, who has seen academic struggle or even failure as a chance to learn. Other times, I have recognized students for creativity, responsibility, or enthusiasm. This quarter, however, I recognized a young woman, Haley Elliott, for her curiosity and wonder. Haley always asks probing questions, always continues her reflections long after class is over, and is sometimes so blown away by what she discovers that she can't wait to share her experiences. Haley approaches learning with curiosity and wonder.

These two traits could be seen as synonymous, but as Paul Martin Opdal of the Institute of Education at the University of Tromsoe points out, they are quite different. Curiosity is directed at something with a defined framework, something that can be examined according to accepted procedures, like the scientific method. For example, currently I am curious about the perceptions of truth in Conrad's Heart of Darkness; I'm curious about how race and gender affect perception (how do I see things differently as a white male?); and I'm curious about the future effects of things like artificial intelligence and virtual reality on education. I ask questions about these things, I research what the experts say, and that leads to more questions and discoveries.

According to psychology professor Todd Kashdan from George Mason University, curiosity has its benefits. People who are curious are more likely to fend off mental illness, making them healthier. They are also more likely to develop greater analytic and problem-solving skills, making them more intelligent. People who are curious develop stronger social relationships as people relate more easily to those who are open and genuinely interested in them. Finally, Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania has named curiosity as one of the top-five human strengths.

Wonder, on the other hand, is directed at realities beyond accepted frameworks and causes one to question accepted rules and procedures. I have experienced wonder when I look at the night sky, most recently as I stood in the darkness by a pile of cardboard that would soon be a bonfire. The sky was clear, immense, and bright with stars. I have felt the same thing as I have sat by the ocean, awed by its expanse, its power, and its constant motion. But I've experienced wonder in small things, too, in trees and leaves, in flowers. In these moments of wonder, I am lifted out of myself and experience something greater.

According to recent studies, wonder builds more tolerance for uncertainty and makes one more aware of spiritual reality, making us conscious of something beyond ourselves and our comprehension. Wonder shrinks our ego, making us nicer and giving us a new and broader perspective. People who experience wonder have a greater sense of abundance, making them more generous; they especially feel like they have more time, making them more patient. Those who regularly experience wonder are more likely to believe in the interconnectedness of all humanity; this is especially true in astronauts who regularly experience wonder as they view the earth from afar and contemplate the vastness of the universe. Finally, having a sense of wonder has been proven to correlate with finding more meaning in life.

So I have taken the advice of those who advocate being more curious: building knowledge (the more you know, the more you can ask questions about), finding the unfamiliar in the familiar, and making sure I pay attention and be present to all around me. I have also taken the advice of those who promote developing more of a sense of wonder: going out into nature, seeking out inspiring works of art and music, and allowing myself to be awed by the people I encounter. I am certainly not engaged in these efforts all the time, but I find that I am happier and more inspired when I make the time to pursue them, especially when I allow myself to wonder.

Curiosity takes some effort, and wonder often rocks our world. Both will cause us some discomfort, but as Assistant Head for Academics Jeff Burroughs is fond of saying, we should dare to be curious. I would add that, like Haley, we should dare to experience wonder, too.

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