Educating for Awe

"Awe leads to something more than mere knowledge. It leads to wisdom itself. 'Awe is the beginning of wisdom,' declares Rabbi Heschel. Awe is far more interesting than information. Awe opens the door in our souls, in our hearts and minds. Awe is bigger than we are – like the sacred is bigger than we are – and so it pulls us out of ourselves, it touches on transcendence. It elicits memorable experiences. Awe awakens reverence, respect, and gratitude. How important is gratitude?

"Heschel says, 'Humanity will destroy itself not from lack of information but from lack of appreciation.' That is how important gratitude is: appreciation is life-saving. Its opposite, taking for granted, is life-threatening. Even species threatening. So awe is important. It is part of our survival package.

"Healthy knowledge can easily lead to awe. But knowledge that is focused almost exclusively on control is not healthy and it does not lead to awe. It puts awe aside; it even puts awe off. It is off-putting and awe-off-putting. There has been very little room for awe in the classrooms of the modern age. The result is that many youth try to escape education at the earliest possible moment. Education becomes a trial and a burden rather than an occasion for expansion and wonder. Education loses its joy. It becomes less than human. It is a job, not work.

"Healthy education will put awe first. When humans care about awe, great things can happen. The mind opens up, and the heart, and, one might say, the soul. Expansion occurs. Wonder returns. The child is kept alive and eager throughout his or her life. Learning becomes a daily event. Books are not put on bookshelves and television does not take over one's psyche.

"Indeed, our minds are made for awe. They respond all together spontaneously to awe. They remember awe. Even I on our deathbeds – especially on our deathbeds – do we remember awe.

"Awe is an attitude of not taking for granted. When I lost my legs due to polio when I was 12 and a year later got their use back, I was awestruck. I resolved never to take my legs for granted again. If you choke on something and can't breathe, just being able to breathe again is an awesome experience."