Have you ever stopped to wonder? Children do it all the time. They come out with the most amazing questions and find fascination in things that older people simply take for granted, ignore or have grown weary of. It’s very refreshing to spend time with children, to listen to their questions, see the world through their eyes and observe their inquisitiveness with respect, honour and amusement, in equal parts.
I remember, as a child, finding endless joy in trying to understand how trees grew, why the sun shone, how to make the sound of running water without running water, how things worked, where they came from, why people thought the things they did and why we were all here. I wondered about the stars above, outer space, life on other worlds, how chemistry worked, how you could get computers to think, why processed dirt could create electronic circuits that you could listen to music with, and how the music reached the radio invisibly, through the air. I wondered why there were colours and music. What were they for? Could I make a car that steered with all four wheels and would that be a better car? How did my dad learn to build a house? There were endless questions and I derived great pleasure simply from daydreaming about them and pondering. New questions came into my head every day. It was a lovely inner world to inhabit, as a child.
Having a sense of wonder, which draws you to notice small things and ask big questions, is the precursor to innovation, invention and creativity. Without that ability to observe, postulate, muse, percolate and think about what you observed, there could be no great art, no progress and no improvement in the human condition. A sense of wonder is a necessary and sufficient condition for shaping the world, benefiting humanity and the planet and being a sentient, significant and social human being.
Wonderment is a form of respect for what you observe. It’s a very different mindset to that of conquest and domination. You can’t observe a delicate insect properly if the first thing you do is kill it by crushing it (yet that is, indeed, how the Victorians tended to study nature, as evidenced by the numerous natural history museums filled to the gunnels with aging, decaying, unnatural taxidermy). To have a true sense of wonder, you have to, at least to some degree, have reverence for and be in awe of the thing you are wondering about.
When do we lose that sense of wonder? At what age do we stop being intrigued about why things are the way they are, how they work, how they got here, why they aren’t different, why so many things are the same and how long ago they began? As children, we’re fearless, inveterate clock dismantlers, driven by the need to know and to understand. When do we stop taking domestic appliances apart out of curiosity?
It seems odd, to me, that there should be a time when you simply lose your sense of wonder. You’re born with it. Why should it suddenly atrophy and vanish? Some people, it is true, maintain that sense of wonder throughout their entire lives. Many of those people become artists. However much they retain that wonder, though, you can’t help thinking they have done so against the odds. It’s no small thing to retain your curiosity, your desire to query, investigate, research, postulate, theorize, extemporize and understand. It’s almost as if your sense of wonder is somehow removed from you, perhaps violently, sometime during your transition from child to adolescent, until you grow into a husk of an adult, with a fully operational wonderment bypass.
Here’s a thought. What if the removal of that sense of wonder was not accidental, inevitable, the course of nature or an organic part of growing up? What if the loss of wonder was deliberate and purposeful? What if there was somebody, or a group of people, that wanted you to lose your sense of wonder, for their own reasons, and had the power and influence to bring that situation about? What if your sense of wonder was, in fact, taken from you? You didn’t lose it all. It was stolen. Think about that, for a second.
Suppose there were some very rich and powerful people that wanted to convince you that it was vitally important that you worked very hard, in fierce competition with your fellow man, at break neck speed, in preference to all other priorities in your life, for fear of being consigned to economic pain and oblivion. What if they organized a system of indoctrination so extensive, ubiquitous, unavoidable and compulsory, that you had no choice but to absorb the brainwashing, over a period of decades? Entertain, for a moment, the notion that in keeping a population compliant, obedient, docile and working slavishly for very rich and powerful people, that it would preserve the power and wealth of these same people.
Suppose, just for a second, that getting everybody to believe in working, for fear of terrible consequences if they didn’t, actually worked to prevent anybody finding a way to compete with those with power and wealth. They might actually believe that they are philanthropically shaping young people into an image of themselves, embodying the values they believe made them rich and powerful in the first place. Does self identifying as philanthropists square with taking away your sense of wonder and spending hours of every day, over a period of years, convincing you to work harder for their ultimate benefit? Is that the action of somebody that truly loved humanity?
Let’s say that such rich and powerful people manipulated governments to enact all of this machinery for destroying our sense of wonder, replacing it with fear, dog-eat-dog competition and selfishness. Suppose the sanctions for non compliance included state sponsored violence, even imprisonment. Suppose that they could also buy up the text book publishers and the media, including every television broadcaster, so that the message could be reinforced through other channels, subtly, bluntly and all pervasively, to accept as natural law that every person’s destiny is to work, work and work, forsaking every other wonderment and pleasure, so that the rich and powerful became richer and more powerful. Imagine these people brainwashing several generations of humans to believe that they should pay to live on the planet upon which they were involuntarily born.
As a final wheeze, imagine that beside using fear as a universal motivation, the rich and powerful spread the idea that everybody can become as rich and powerful as they are, if only you were prepared to work hard enough, “pay your dues” to those rich and powerful people that provide employment and forget any notion of doing anything other than cutting your neighbour’s throat to get ahead. Every person an aspiring entrepreneur and zealous, wild-eyed capitalist. The twist in the joke is that they know they have arranged things so that no matter how hard you work, how viscerally and ruthlessly you destroy your competitors or how single minded your devotion to the goal of accumulating obscene wealth and influence, you can never actually reach their level of power and wealth. Imagine they made it possible to taste that “success”, as they have defined it and indoctrinated you to believe, in tiny fragments of relative wealth and power, but not to actually become so absolutely rich and powerful that you threaten their own position, let alone supersede it. The ninety nine percent can never become the one percent. It’s a mathematical impossibility and guaranteed by the institutionalised system that has been installed.
Imagine that part of the plan was to alienate children from their parents, weaken the family unit and ensure that cohorts of people became loyal to the state, the elite who controlled the state and to the ideals espoused in the schools, rather than finding strength and wisdom in living, learning and loving, within an extended family.
How would anybody rich and powerful pull off such a diabolical plot to maintain their own standing, while simultaneously turning the entire population into willing, voluntary slaves, only too glad to self sacrifice for the good of the elite? How would they find a way to so brainwash the population, that people enforced the whole hoax, like good doggies and fiercely defended the entire edifice, to the death, for fear of the unknown consequences of not having a job, or of facing the assuredly dark alternative to working ceaselessly, at the expense of all true pleasure, wonder, curiosity and freedom, just to survive. Such a plan would be brilliant in its sheer, twisted, brutality. It’s almost unbelievable that such a plan could be brought to fruition, sustained and never challenged. Why would anybody even bother?
Wouldn’t any kindly, humanity-loving person eschew the very idea, anyway, even if it meant that they could lose their money and influence? Surely their fear of being in the same predicament as the rest of mankind would not be so loathsome to them and so offend their sense of entitlement, superiority and privilege that they would abandon their better natures and declare warfare on the rest of humanity, in perpetuity. Surely not. Who could possibly be so self-involved and hateful, while so lacking in moral fibre?
Compulsory school education has a remarkable history. The popular idea is that it was instituted, for the good of the population, by some kindly, well meaning philanthropists, who spent their own hard earned money to convince governments to institutionalise the idea and who even bought and paid for schools, teachers and controlling educational bodies, to ensure that compulsory education was universal and unavoidable. What great men they must have been. I wonder who they were and what gave them such wealth? Who paid for all this free schooling?
Here’s a link I found about the history of education in America. I can’t verify any of the information in it. I haven’t tried. There are, however, some interesting names that turn up with alarming regularity in the story.
Some of the people who funded the education system, who created organisations that ran education and who printed the text books (at least in America) are people with long standing reputations for being ruthless, cheating, robber barons.
Why would such people suddenly behave like philanthropic humanists? You have to admit that it is a little schizophrenic, isn’t it? Was their motivation some kind of bid for redemption, to counter their sordid reputations for taking advantage of nearly everybody they met? Strange if it was, because they didn’t seem too concerned about their reputations while they were building their business empires.
The other possibility is, of course, that they were merely shoring up their interests. Does that sound more consistent to you? Merciless, unremitting, Machiavellian competition-crushers would be more likely to want to control their interests through making others merciless, unremitting, ruthless competition-crushers too, all while in the pursuit of the goal of having the populace working hard for the benefit of the elite.
So what kind of education regime did they create? Was it one of enlightenment, where every individual was encouraged and nurtured to grow and mature, exploring and developing their own passions and gifts, or was it something altogether different? Here’s an interesting link that explores that very question:
What was your schooling like? Mine was authoritarian. All power was devolved to the warden, also known as the principal or head teacher. He could issue any edict he liked and acted as judge and jury, to mete out arbitrary, summary, corporal punishments, involving assault and injury to the person, for the most minor, trivial offences, such as not having your school tie appropriately tied. There was no mechanism for appeal. It seemed to matter immensely to the principal that ties were the right length and all the way up to the collar, even when the ambient temperature was 38 degrees Celsius. We were even required to own school blazers, though enforcement had become indefensible and futile, by the time I was in school.
Order, by way of standing in straight lines, in the blazing sun and not chatting in assembly or class, was strictly enforced. The school would rather see young people develop melanoma or pass out from heat stroke, than break ranks and sit in the shade to hear the principal’s message.
Humiliation and criticism was a frequently used tactic, by the teaching staff, to deal with underperformance. Failure, we were taught, was to be feared and avoided at all costs. It was punishable. In fact, failure is something we ought to have embraced and dealt with maturely, because that is the only mechanism available to us to go beyond our current limitations. You have to try and fail, before you can figure out how. If you studiously avoid failure, you get nowhere.
In school, you didn’t eat when you were hungry, or go to the toilet when you felt the pressing need. You were required to confine those activities to set times, regulated by the school bell. There was little freedom of movement or association. We were not permitted to mingle with older children. Everything was regimented, down to how you sat in class (in rows) and with whom. Asking searching questions was discouraged and if you ever did, you were likely to get the response, “it just is that way, ok?” This applied equally well to questions about school policies as to academic questions, like “why is iron magnetic, but aluminium isn’t?”
I was elected to the school council, a body that was supposed to represent the voice of the student body in school policies. I never saw a single council resolution acted upon by the school. Not one. For years, we worked in graffiti damaged classrooms and were told that nothing could be done about it. It was only when some classmates and I approached the principal on our own initiative, to have him buy some paint and brushes that the work got done, by us volunteers, after school. It took us two afternoons. The fact it had remained in such a state of disrepair for as many years as it had was truly pathetic, when some sixteen year old boys could put it right in a couple of afternoons, for the price of a couple of tins of paint and some rollers and brushes. A couple of teachers could have made even shorter work of the task. The principal never got his hands dirty.
The schools I went to, even the ones designed to hot house the gifted and talented, had a remarkable knack for dissuading you from daydreaming, thinking your own thoughts, pursuing your own lines of enquiry, addressing your questions, born of pure curiosity, with conversation killer answers and generally blunting your sense of wonderment. If you did any of those things, you were admonished for not paying attention in class. In fact, to me it felt like my sense of wonder, which had served me so well in early childhood, was brutally, violently, oppressively bludgeoned out of me and every other one of us.
I’m sure the teachers that did this believed, in their hearts, that they were doing good and doing what was best. They were doing what they had been told to do, both as pupils in schools at an earlier time, and during their teacher training. They were as indoctrinated as the rest of us, brought up in an earlier time, to have the wonderment beaten out of them. Now it was our turn to learn from them.
Many of my teachers told stories of how good we had it, compared to the violent and repressive educations that they themselves had endured. Somehow, I was supposed to believe that their less hard core version of repression was a blessing. Never considered was the idea that there could be a non repressive form of education. That wasn’t an askable question. It wasn’t on the table. If asked, the teacher would respond with sincere incomprehension.
Are schools really about developing each individual according to their own gifts, passions, skills, and interests, at their own appropriate rate, or are children batch-processed, by date of manufacture, to conform, obey without question, repeat “facts” drilled into them by rote and give the acceptable answers, not ask the difficult, different or challenging ones. I hear tales of four year olds being labelled “behind in their reading”, compared to their five year old classmates. What does that teacher expect? Do they think it does any good to pressurize and judge a child so young, for being a couple of months less accomplished at reading? We’re talking an average of 180 days behind. What does that even matter, over the decade and a half (or more) of school, or over a lifetime? So, why is there so much pressure to conform and align? It’s a symptom of a culture of control-freakery.
I’m not the only one that questions this. I found this article, by a teacher caught up in the culture of the education system, to be a thoughtful one:
Our schools are filled with charts that try to normalize our children’s abilities, ignore the outliers and focus on the average. There are tests and grades and competitive sports. Children are isolated; given the idea that everybody else is their rival and that nobody can help them. We have negative reinforcement of behaviour (punishments rather than rewards), rule by diktat and arbitrary fiat. Children learn that authority behaves with contemptible excess, but absolute impunity. This is the model they must believe about the ruling elite of society, before they leave school. There is nothing they can do about it. They must learn to accept it. We learn to fear failure, because of its dire consequences and to keep working, no matter what. You’ll be left behind if you don’t keep up and that is a fate worse than death. The desire to try things out and experiment is largely curbed. Creative pursuits are denigrated as second class activities, best relegated to the status of mere hobbies and pass times. The goal of education, at a top level, is to indoctrinate you with these concepts and ideas, until you accept them unquestioningly as your reality, just prior to your entering the real world. You are supposed to see the real world as simply an extension of school. Bill Gates is on record as saying something to the effect that if you think your teacher was harsh and unfair, wait until you meet your boss.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. There are alternatives. It has been said that if you teach a child how to read, he can do his own discovery and exploration of knowledge, through books. Anything else is pure brainwashing. There may be a grain of truth to that idea.
Some people that read this post, theorising about the Loss of Wonder and how it happens, might be teachers and may be feeling righteous indignation, anger or a wish to dismiss all of this out of hand. How could millions of teachers be complicit? It doesn’t seem possible. Well, if they are honest, they would admit that the majority of teachers don’t consider alternative ways of teaching. Most think that this is how teaching should be. They’re already compliant and brainwashed. After all, they came up through the same system and have learned that the world of work, as teachers, truly is merely an extension of their experience at school, just as they were promised.
Their awareness of alternatives or of the real complexion and systematic nature of the culture they perpetuate, as teachers, is not actually all that high. Few know the history of how the system they work within and maintain came to be and for what unstated purposes. They, too, lost their sense of wonderment, particularly about how we assimilate knowledge and explore and shape our world, some long time ago. It was taken from them. They were selected for teacher training and careers as teachers because they already matched the desired pattern, laid down by the educational authorities, which in turn were funded by obscenely rich industrialists, for their own covert ends.
Of course, the compliance is not universal. There are some teachers that question how things are done, but they’re usually weeded out by the system. Those that think otherwise fight all their working lives, at great personal cost. They are passed over for promotion and salary increases. They are placed under increased scrutiny from colleagues and superiors. They’re branded as troublemakers. None of this is official, naturally. It just sort of happens, as an emergent property of the system laid down by the industrial elites, some hundred or so years ago.
We all know some teacher or other that was truly enlightened and we remember them fondly and vividly, because they were not the norm. They were a rarity. This is leakage from the system, but the main message, to work hard for the benefit of others, is delivered to students nevertheless. One enlightened teacher can’t single-handedly change that. It is almost wholly unknown to find an entire school populated by enlightened educators. Most teachers, even the most aware and awake, will recognise this truth about their colleagues.
I submit that the systematic removal of wonderment is catastrophic, for humanity. The cost of keeping a wealthy elite safe and secure in their opulence and power, by keeping the rest of us compliant, controlled and obedient, is of untold magnitude. It’s not just a direct, monetary cost (though it is that, too). Rather, it is a flagrant, unbounded opportunity cost that is at issue here. What else could humanity have achieved, were it not for the systematic and violent removal of their sense of wonder?
A loss of wonder kills curiosity, so we don’t discover as much. We tend to permit authorities to pursue unwise and unsafe policies for much longer, because we aren’t minded to find out what they are up to or what its consequences might be. We don’t hold them to account, because we are educated to accept and to not question. We don’t even care that we might be harmed by some course of action sanctioned by those we leave in charge. It’s none of our business and we couldn’t change things anyway. That is the message we learned at school.
A loss of wonder kills creativity. If you don’t know fascination, you don’t know how to extend the practice and theory of art. Art is not considered very important, in the scheme of things, anyway. In school, all of the respect, praise and big prizes went to those who pursued academic subjects. We learned that. The industrialists, who have a vested interest in being the sole controllers and owners of intellectual property, like it to be that way. A nation of artists won’t man the machines, obey the orders of their bosses (what bosses?), comply with the debt demands of bankers and governments or produce consumers that unquestioningly support industrialists through their purchasing power. Artists are much harder to control.
With the loss of wonder, curiosity, creativity and agency in the world comes a sense of inevitable despair. We accept the role of victim. We no longer know how to change the world, or why we should even try. That leaves us in an existential vacuum, where we are reduced to being undifferentiated sources of human labour and compliant consumers. None of that is very fulfilling.
With despair comes a loss of hope, the tendency to seek oblivion through drug abuse, crime and nihilism. We become cynical, world-weary, wary of everybody, paranoid, mistrusting and isolated. Yes, we become individuals, all right, but only in the sense of being divided and ruled.
The culture of competition, dominance and violence we learned at school blossoms into violent crime, rape, bullying and contempt for our fellow man. We don’t even see them as equals. While we’re winning, they are (by definition) our inferiors. We feel entitled to treat them as we like, with caprice, malice and cruelty. These are the lessons we absorbed from the culture of school.
All of these appalling consequences of the loss of wonder are attributable to a single goal. All of this is in the service of the elite, who set things up this way, to stay rich. They wanted an obedient workforce and customer base. They also wanted to remake people in their own image, as a sort of testament to their own notions of their superiority and quality. It was pure ego.
The irony is that this elaborate edifice for covert mind control has backfired on them. With the loss of wonder comes the loss of initiative. Initiating projects no longer comes naturally, to many people. They don’t feel like they’re in charge, so they don’t attempt to initiate anything. People no longer believe they are capable of productive initiative.
According to Seth Godin, in this post: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/01/most-people-dont-believe-they-are-capable-of-initiative.html , while nobody thinks they can initiate any viable project or course of action, they almost all believe they are capable of and entitled to edit, give feedback or simply criticize. We’re all critics and editors, now, not starters. It’s not a shortage of artists that explains why we have lost the innate ability to create or initiate. It’s because we’ve been taught to believe that it is not possible or acceptable for anyone to do it. The elites, through their carefully devised education system, told us so. People have been brainwashed into believing that their job, their life’s work, is to copy edit the world, not to design it. The elites told us that, so that they could maintain their monopoly on the possibility and acceptability of initiating things. It was a selfish, not altruistic, act.
That’s why we all exist within a giant, out-of-control, doomsday machine. Even the elites cannot escape it.
We spend the first part of our lives trying to live up to the life planned for us. Planned, it turns out, for profit by elites, then indoctrinated into everybody, including your poor old parents, so that they assist in ramming it down your throat. You then spend the rest of your life trying to discover your true purpose and calling and extricating yourself from the planned life imposed upon you. There are penalties and sanctions for those that start to step out of line and who leave the planned life. The bailiffs come. The safety net is taken away. The banks turn against you. Your fellow men see you as a work shy scrounger. You tell everyone you’re following your bliss, but they reply that you’re unemployed. Friends will shun and turn against you. They fear the ground you dare to tread. Your own government will persecute you for the payment of taxes. If you are unlucky enough, the police and courts will take you into custody and take away your freedom. They need to stop a mass exodus from the life they planned for you at all costs. Their opulence and continued abuse of power depends upon it.
The persecution perpetuates, almost autonomically, because each and every one of us is conditioned, from cradle to grave, to respond to threats, disagreements, diversity and intransigence with the default solution of hatred and violence, just as the elites do and have done for hundreds of years. Kill it, exterminate it and destroy it. Conquer and dominate, instead of concur and accommodate. Even our medical practice follows this basic line of thought and approach. How are cancers treated? As cells that need a cure to be brought back to cellular health, or by killing it, cutting it out, burning it, poisoning it, exterminating it and destroying it? It’s no longer a valued part of our body that needs to be repaired. No, it is thought of as a threat from within that must be obliterated, irrespective of the cost. Our entire culture is allopathic.
From every Hollywood movie that ends in an idealised, romanticised gun fight, to our “foreign policy”, which sanctions organised, unbridled, indiscriminate murder on a vast scale, treating even toddlers as “potential enemy combatants”, or “collateral damage” at best, we all reach for the violent solution as a reflex. But the industrial scale of our violence is now so disproportionate to the conflicts it seeks to solve (and never does), that the planet and all of humanity can no longer absorb it. It threatens our very existence. Yet, we repeat these patterns of behaviour, over and over, like obedient, compliant, mindless robots, just as we have been trained to do by our media and our education system. Is this really the most creative solution all of humanity can devise to handle threat and conflict? Hardly.
Why don’t we think more creatively about handling conflict and threat? Because we can’t. We’ve been told not to. We lost our ability to do so. We don’t even think we ought to or that we can initiate such a thing. We know that even trying may call us into question and lead those sufficiently conditioned to unquestioningly uphold the existing system to seek us out to kill us, exterminate us and destroy us. We become the threat. That’s their reflex response to threats.
People don’t initiate things because they’ve lost their sense of wonder, respect and reverence for things they don’t understand. We have been educated to believe we cannot and ought not initiate anything. Was this a deliberate or an unintended consequence of the drive for compliance and obedience? Who can say, for sure?
So, it seems like our loss of wonder is not an accidental, unavoidable state of affairs. Our wonder may have been taken from us, in the most insidious of ways – by promising to educate you. The people that set up the education system in this way, for their own ends – how philanthropic were they really? Is it even credible to see these people as philanthropists, given their documented less than savoury behaviours in the world of business?
What would the world be like if we retained our sense of wonder, seized it back and reformed the education system so that retention of wonder was paramount? I wonder.
All of the narrative above is a purely speculative postulation of what might have happened, of course. It’s just an idea. I wonder if it could be true.
I wonder if you wonder.