The First Step toward Wisdom

“The beginning is thought to be more than half of the whole.”

– Aristotle

We often advertise classical education as an education for the whole human person. We are not training people for careers, we say, but minds for Wisdom; we aim not to improve skill sets so much as we aim to improve the human heart. Such statements can inspire and energize us during the first days of teacher in-service, but they become daunting ‒ even overwhelming ‒ for the teacher walking into a classroom for the first time. Sometimes we concentrate so much on our ideals of Wisdom and virtue that we lose sight of the fact that these words describe an end result, rather than a beginning. We forget that every transformation in virtue demands a lack of virtue on day one. And so, when we first confront that sea of new and inscrutable faces, we can be at a loss as to where we should even begin to lead these unknown charges down the path toward human excellence.

As is usually the case when we ask questions about beginnings, tradition has a ready answer: “Wisdom begins in wonder.” Who does not remember the mystery and enchantment of childhood, the reverent awe and innocent questioning in the face of commonplace things? Every child is born with a sense of “marveling.” Yet wonder is not a mere historical antecedent to wisdom; it is its existential prerequisite. Wisdom must begin in wonder because the latter describes a certain openness and receptivity of the spirit. Wonder is an awakening to what is other; it is a recognition of something beyond, of something great, together with the willingness to receive. There can be no significant transformation of the human person without the willingness to be transformed.

But the fact that every human being by nature enters the world prepared to marvel does not thereby make the teacher’s task an easier one; for nature can be obscured by custom, and few things are so customary to the modern mind as the apathetic unbelief in the marvelous. It is impressed upon us from our earliest years that the mature human attitude is marked by disenchantment; in our age we grow up “to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in men shaken” (Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise). Reverence and awe give way to boredom, because in a world where everything can be controlled, there is nothing left to marvel at ‒ our basic assumption of mastery has eradicated the experience of mystery. We find no need for wonder because we find nothing given that we feel the need to receive.

And so, more often than not, the teacher stepping into the classroom for the first time faces the truly challenging task of reaching minds and hearts that are intentionally kept hidden behind the customary masks of unbelief and apathy. But only hearts that are open to marveling will ever be capable of Wisdom, and so the whole of classical education ‒ the whole effort of transforming human character ‒ depends upon breaking through this crust of custom and drawing students into an encounter with what is great, other, and beyond the mere self. If we teachers do nothing else, let’s at least make every effort to get this first step right.