Friday, May 8, 2009

An Inborn Sense of Wonder

Rachel Carson is my hero.

I'm reading about her life in a completely awesome book, How Lincoln Learned to Read by Daniel Wolff, which I can't put down. Wolff's book delves into the early lives of twelve famous Americans, starting with Ben Franklin and moving chronologically forward to Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth, and all the way to Elvis Presley. We consider what they learned, what was going on around them, and how it shaped them into the adults they would become. This book weaves the lives of these twelve into one beautiful, unconventional quilt of American history - specifically, the history of how young Americans get educated. It is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read, and I have read a LOT of books.

One of these Americans is Rachel Carson, pioneer of the modern environmental movement, biologist, author of Silent Spring. Rachel grew up on a ridge in the Allegheny region of Pennsylvania, and spent much of her childhood wandering the woods around her home. The town in which she lived, Springdale, became a manufacturing Mecca during her childhood. Home to glue and glass factories that spewed out horrific pollution, perhaps it was this early exposure that gave Rachel her first sense of the destruction that can accompany modernity. In any case, she grew up a passionate nature lover, and I think it came easily to her, years later, to speak out and try to help stop the destruction of her - and our - beloved outdoors.

According to Wolff, Rachel hardly attended the public elementary school in her town, preferring instead to be out in nature, or reading and writing books and articles of her own choosing. Her writing was published in a national magazine for children, St. Nicholas, starting from the time she was eleven (if you want to read more about the magazine, go here). One, "My Favorite Recreation," written by fifteen year-old Rachel, chronicles a day in May spent out in the woods, among the pines and birds - "a hymn to nature," Wolff calls it in How Lincoln Learned to Read.

As an adult, Rachel published a magazine article (later turned into a book) called "The Sense of Wonder," in which she writes about the preservation of a child's "inborn sense of wonder." This phrase, which I recall hearing during my teacher training (but never knew that it originated with Rachel), resonated within me - I wanted to be the teacher who could encourage this in my students.

It is Wolff's description of her 'Wonder' article that, for me, elevates Rachel from merely a great American woman to my hero: "The Sense of Wonder" places other forms of learning above school-type learning. Wolff quotes Rachel: "I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel." He then continues: "What [Rachel] calls "a diet of facts" is more hindrance than help."

And that, dear reader, is why we homeschool; to foster this inborn sense of wonder. Learning is so much more than just vocabulary or math facts, and if we make it too much about these things, the spark goes out of our kids. The beauty of all styles of homeschooling, from school-at-home to interest-led, is that the acquisition of facts really doesn't take all that long, certainly not seven hours a day, five days a week, for twelve precious years of a child's life.

I haven't finished it yet, but I suspect that the conclusion of How Lincoln Learned to Read will discuss the need for modern education to include more of the unconventional, and far, far less of the standardized. In nearly every chapter so far, the early education (of these shapers of America) that mattered most didn't take place inside a school. Instead, it was out in the world - in a print shop, in the Civil War, or out in the woods - that these Americans learned their most important lessons.


Anonymous said...

Hey Karen
I love Rachel Carson too! I think her message is simple but obvious and very powerful.

Thank you for letting us know about this book. It is on my list to get at the library next time I go.....


Anonymous said...

OMG - - I can't WAIT to get my hands on this book!! Have you thought of a career in book reviewing? You've got skills, baby!!

The Stone Age Techie said...

Carolyn - What Rachel Carson have you read, and loved? I guess, if she's gonna be my hero, I'd better read some of her stuff :-)

Topsy - Thanks! It is so cool to have a place to shout about great books, and even better when people respond back on them.

Jena said...

You inspire me. Love this: Learning is so much more than just vocabulary or math facts, and if we make it too much about these things, the spark goes out of our kids.

Amen to that. Must read this book. Thank you!

Mister Dad said...

Dang it. Now i gotta slide this book in my line-up, a list getting so long i hafta find and stick a longevity one in there soon.

Beautiful stuff, but i can't help but "feel" wonderment is the "fact" of the matter on how we really learn any thing. i used to tell buddies that passion for something feels better than regurgitation...

The Stone Age Techie said...

Jena - Thanks. The school my oldest went to drummed everything good out of him, so I know from this firsthand :-)

Mister Dad - That's it exactly! Elsewhere, in the chapter about JFK, Wolff notes that the primary schools the Kennedys attend foster curiosity and imagination, not the force-feeding of information.

Cheers, guys!

D Wolff said...


Thanks for very kind words. Hope the book stays this good all the way through.

If I can help you -- or other hme-schoolers -- in talking about "How Lincoln Learned to Read" -- I'd be happy to.

Daniel Wolff

The Stone Age Techie said...

Mr. Wolff - I am honored that you read my post about your book, thank you for stopping by!
I would love to do a blog interview with you; if you're interested, please email me at
Thanks again for visiting -

gina said...

I'm going to have to get that book!

Lori said...

this sounds like a great read!

The Stone Age Techie said...

It was a great read - and I am excited to say that author Daniel Wolff has agreed to an interview here at The Stone Age Techie! I'll post it ASAP... I am SO excited!!