Class Notes

The Search for Wonder

A lasting lesson on how to view the world

By Paula Marantz Cohen | April 23, 2013


I’ll never forget a freshman course I took as a university student in the 1970s. The woman who taught it, now dead, had once occupied a tenured position at a university on the West Coast. But she had followed her husband to my college, where he promptly dumped her for someone younger.

My teacher, a Holocaust survivor, had a deep well of bitterness, which would surface occasionally when she was teaching, say, Measure for Measure. Usually, though, literature seemed a source of solace and uplift for her.

Reading Paradise Lost in her class was especially memorable. She was not one for undirected discussion, and had particular points in mind that she wanted to make. She would often begin a sentence and leave the last word open for us to fill in (a technique parodied in the 1986 movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when the teacher, played by Ben Stein, prompts his profoundly uninterested class for the missing term: “Anyone? Anyone?”).

Normally, I would have found her method narrow and annoyingly pedagogical, but somehow Mrs. F. carried it off. Perhaps because she possessed the rare quality of wisdom, whatever word she was seeking came as close to the Word as my impious nature was ever going to get.

When we were reading Book IV of Paradise Lost, she asked us: “What is it that Satan feels on first seeing Adam and Eve in the Garden?”

“Anger,” “envy,” “malice,” we offered. But that was not what she wanted. She pointed us to the opening argument of Book IV: “Satan’s first sight of Adam and Eve; his wonder at their excellent form and happy state …”

The answer she wanted was “wonder.” It proved that Satan still had vestiges of his former glory. His first response to innocence and beauty was wonder, though his fallen nature immediately turned to envy and the desire to destroy.

To feel wonder—and, more importantly, to sustain that feeling—is to be blessed. This idea has remained with me as the great lesson from Mrs. F.’s class—a touchstone for my life and my teaching. Because of Mrs. F. I am aware when I feel wonder. I cherish it, seek it, and seek to sustain it. For many years, I have tried to elicit it from students, and to make them value it as well.

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