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If you’ve ever heard of the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, you’re unlikely to forget it. It’s the stuff of legend in the world of Catholic education:
Almost 50 years ago, the University of Kansas established a new humanities curriculum. It lasted only about 10 years. But those 10 years inspired conversions, priestly vocations, and so many Catholic initiatives that the program is still leaving its mark on the life of the Catholic Church.
There was something visionary and inspired about the program, as its outsized impact shows. As an educator, I have found myself thinking a lot lately about the motto of the program, whith was Nascantur in admiratione: “Let them be born in wonder.”
“Early childhood develops under the sign of wonder”; for the child everything is a source of wonder because everything is new. Wonder is an exceedingly important stimulus for the human spirit, so much so that Plato said: “This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher.” Philosophy indeed has no other origin.
Why must we be “born in wonder” in order to enter into the immense riches of the intellectual life?
I think it’s because wonder is the starting point of all forms of interior life, kindling not only the intellectual life of the mind, but also the spiritual life of faith and prayer.
In this sense, wonder is the most underrated virtue. Like the spark of a match that sets wood ablaze, wonder inspires the mind and heart to begin to seek out what is good, true and beautiful.
What does living with wonder look like in practice?
It starts with cultivating a sense of awe at the created world. It calls for slowing down to notice the good things that surround us.
This awe can begin with the littlest things. When I slice into a pomegranate, I call my children to see its vivid jewel-like seeds. When we cut an apple in half to find the star, we marvel at the beauty hidden inside every part of God’s creation.
These are trivial examples, but in myriad similar ways, I try to chase the sense of wonder that comes so naturally to my children. Children lead the way in this work.
And wonder is closely tied to thankfulness. When we marvel at beauty, it’s hard not to feel a sense of gratitude for the One who made it all.
The creators of the Integrated Humanities Program understood that many of their students came into college feeling jaded and burned out. Just like so many young people today, they had endless information, but no meaning or purpose behind it.
We live in a culture saturated with knowledge, all the facts in the world available at the tips of our fingers. But knowledge alone is insufficient without wisdom, without prudence, and above all without the humility of knowing how little we really know.
As G.K. Chesterton understood, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”
So I wonder if the answer to greater joy and a sense of purpose lies in the luminous Latin motto of that 1970s college program. Perhaps a rebirth in wonder is something our hearts and minds crave even more than we know.