By Bishop James Conley
“Wonder is the beginning of knowledge,” said Professor John Senior, “the reverent fear that beauty strikes within us.”
Professor Senior, my godfather and former teacher in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, built his whole life around teaching the need for wonder. He reveled in the mysteries of the world and in the mystery of God himself — to which our world points. He taught me that if each of us took the opportunity to really look at the world around us — to marvel at nature, at humanity, at our own creation, and at God, we would be filled with curiosity, with delight, and with an eagerness to learn, to understand, and to know the world that the Lord has created.
“Each creature is a mirror of its Maker,” he would often say, “we need only look!”
I think of my old teacher often during the springtime, as I travel around the Diocese of Lincoln to participate in graduations at our Catholic high schools. I hope and pray that our students have acquired that “reverent fear” through a sense of wonder, an experience which engenders a love of learning and a foundation for a lifetime of wisdom and knowledge. As I often say, I am grateful for the good work of our diocesan teachers and administrators, and I am proud of our Catholic schools.
In fact, our schools, like every good and perfect thing, come from the Lord. They themselves, like every good and perfect thing, are an occasion to marvel at what God has done through his Church — through us, and through those who have gone before us.
In our Catholic schools, the Lord has charged us an apostolate that allows us to form students to really live — not to just to prepare to earn a living, but to experience what it means to live: the joy of friendship, the delight and wonder of learning; and acquiring a freedom that comes from living in accord with God’s plan. A good Catholic liberal education “frees” the soul to pursue truth, goodness and beauty, in a lifelong quest for wisdom.
But to continue forming our students well, it is important to understand the world in which they live.
There is a book I recently read that I recommend to you — “iGen,” by a San Diego State University psychologist, Jean Twenge. The book is about the impact of technology on young people. Dr. Twenge has studied generational differences as a psychologist for 25 years. In her book, she writes that around the year 2012, she noticed a dramatic shift in teen behaviors and emotional states. In fact, she says the shift was unlike anything she had seen in her own work, or in data about generational characteristics dating back to 1930. Those shifts, she says, denote an experience of life among young people that is radically different from people a few years older than them, and radically different from anything recorded in all of her data.
2012 was the year that the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. This fact, Dr. Twenge says, has completely shaped a generation. She calls them iGen’ers — young people born between 1995 and 2012. This generation of young people has grown up with smartphones, and Instagram, and the internet available to them at all times.
The oldest members of iGen were only 12 when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007. They were 15 when iPads were introduced in 2012. They were 9 when Facebook was launched and 11 when Twitter came onto the scene. These things have shaped their social patterns, their daily lives, and, most interestingly, their neurological patterns.
The live their lives on their phones. They report being more comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car with friends, or at a party. They are less likely to drink or engage in premarital sex than their predecessors.
They report being un-attracted to traditional teen “values” like independence or rebellion. They are less likely to smoke or do drugs than previous generations were. They even are less likely—far less likely—to get drivers’ licenses before they finish high school.
But they are not happy, or healthy. Dr. Twenge says that rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. They report being lonely, depressed, and isolated.
They are living virtual lives. They are not experiencing real things. And, Dr. Twenge says, their virtual reality—the virtual reality of their day-to-day lives—is what is making them unhappy.
They are students sorely in need of wonder.
“All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness,” Twenge says. “There is not a single exception.”
Our kids need real things. They need to experience the world. They need to experience sunshine, and music, and romance, and mistakes. They need to experience friendship.
And we have an obligation to give them those things.
There are other issues. Today’s young people believe in technocracy— that the limits of what we can do determine the limits of our morality. They believe that science and faith are incompatible. And they believe that religion is the cause of unhappiness, inequality, and violence in the world. These things aren’t true. And we have an obligation to show them that.
We have an obligation to show them, through the experience of real things—what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God, what it means to be truly human. That is a critical part of the mission of our schools today, and in the future.
To form our students, we need to continue to form them for wonder — for the “reverent fear” stirred within us by beauty. I am grateful that our schools are committed to that mission. I am grateful that our families are committed to that mission. And I pray that you will join us in helping our students to be reborn in wonder— and thus reborn in faith, in imagination, in friendship, and in joy.