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The Wonder School

David Cowles

Apr 15, 2024

“Learning begins with curiosity and children are nothing but question-boxes.”

Would you send your child to a school that didn’t teach reading, writing or arithmetic? Suppose that same school had a track record of producing PhD’s too young to toast their own success? 

It’s a wonder that anyone in our society learns anything at all. We have turned the whole process of education upside down. We begin by teaching abstract tools, the three Rs, before we give students any credible sense of how or why anyone would ever want to use these tools. 

This is not how human organisms work. We set goals, guided by transcendental values such as Beauty, Truth, and Justice, and then we design, assemble or manufacture tools to help us achieve those goals.

Our education system reverses the process. We drown our children in tool making exercises, long before they have any inkling of why they might want such tools. To paraphrase Jacques Ellul, we suppress curiosity and purpose in favor of La Technique, technical skill.

Only children who manage to swim up through the swamp’s tangled undergrowth to the surface are allowed to climb onto lily pads to contemplate the stars. Those who do not make it to the surface, the majority as it turns out, are considered just so much collateral damage

Even those who do make it to the surface are often ‘changed’ by the ordeal. Some no longer have any interest in lily pads or stars; they are content to gorge themselves on the lavish buffet spread out on the swamp’s surface. 

Others are just grateful for the relative security of the lily pad. They are content to live out their days in sloth, never bothering to raise their heads. Not satisfied with the severity of ‘kill or be killed’ natural selection, we have added an arbitrary layer of cultural selection. Brilliant!

We apply the same logic to the education of physicians. Day One, the med school class is full of young idealists, anxious to devote their lives to the wellbeing of humanity generally and the welfare of their own patients specifically. 

Suppose you’re the evil overlord of some hostile alien civilization (R U?). Your job is to stifle intellectual development on Planet Earth. How do you do that when the planet is covered with 2 and 3 year olds, chirping like hungry chicks in a nest, asking their never-ending questions.

Your predecessor in this job, Herod the Great (c. 0 CE), came up with a clever solution: Slaughter all 2 year old boys (sic)! But how did that work out? Now you’ve been sent to come up with a more effective, and possibly less abhorrent, solution. 

According to the Handbook of 20th Century Attrocities, when you cannot eradicate some social phenomenon by force, the next best thing is to co-opt it. And so you did! You designed an education ‘system’, powered by curiosity, but virtually guaranteed to extinguish that curiosity. You’re a marvel! Would you mind if I put your name in the hat for a Nobel?

Your genius was to insert a layer of ‘technical tools’ (the legendary 3 R’s) between the questions and their answers. “I’d love to answer your questions, Susie, but first you need to master trigonometry. Let me know when you’ve done that, and then I’ll be glad to help you.”  

Learning begins with curiosity and children are nothing but question-boxes. Why wouldn’t they be? They are thrown naked, ignorant, and defenseless onto an alien shore (Earth). They can’t afford to be bored, yet; their survival depends on figuring things out… and quickly. From their first cry in the delivery room, they are collecting data points for a personal Mappa Mundi

I can see why this would be threatening to an imperial power. But what happens apres vous? Le Deluge? (Louis XV) Perhaps a future generation of overlords will see some value in Earthlings’ insatiable curiosity. In anticipation of such an eventuality, I propose a pilot project, a test market. Let’s set up a small chain of magnet schools (we’ll call them Wonder Schools) around the globe. Our founding motto: “Every question is a Nobel Prize in waiting!” 

So if my Wonder Schools are not going to teach the 3 R’s, what will they teach? Obviously, the curriculum will grow out of the specific interests of the students and their teachers. No two schools, no two grade levels, no two semesters will be the same. To accommodate the wide range of students’ curiosity, we’ll need to ‘stock’ our schools with enthusiastic, creative teachers who have multi-disciplinary interests. 

If this sounds a bit like 4th/5th century (BCE) Greece or 9th century (CE) monastic Europe or 15th/16th century Italy (Renaissance), I’m ok with that. 

Our curriculum will emerge from the ground up, student directed, but our teachers need to be prepared with a few ‘standbys’... topics that can break the ice when things get sticky. Traditional (mis)education introduces new subjects to students as they mature. We will not do that! Our pre-K curriculum will mirror our Grade 12 curriculum…but at a very different level of depth, obviously. We conceptualize lifelong learning as a spiral, not a straight line. 

Of course, students will not study every subject every year; but neither is it ‘one and done’. Older students will often choose to re-explore, at a deeper level, subjects that they were exposed to at a younger age. Here are just a few ideas to get us going:

Where are we?

Look up! What’s in the sky (besides space junk)? All ages will enjoy exploring photos from the Webb and other telescopes. What have we learned from Voyager, Hubble, and Webb? Explore our solar system: what’s up with the neighbors? And what lies beyond?

Where did all this come from and where is it headed? Students will be exposed to everything from Intelligent Design to Big Bang Cosmology, Bootstrapping, and Darwinian Evolution. Debate the fate of the universe: Big Crunch or Deep Freeze? Modern theories will be compared with views reflected in mythology, astrology, etc.

Who are we? 

What am I made of? Where did I come from? What makes me, me? Subject to readiness, students will learn about the origins of life on Earth, DNA, cell structure, evolution, and the organization of the human organism. How am I my body? How am I not my body? The Hard Problem of Consciousness will be introduced.

Are We alone? 

The Search for life, or ‘Intelligent life’ (SETI), in the Universe. Is there life outside Planet Earth? Is it intelligent? What are we looking for? What do we expect to find and how will we know when we’ve found it? How would life adapt to different environments? How would those environments influence the design and/or behavior of alien life forms?

We’ve never been alone!

We are surrounded by living things: pets, livestock, animals in the wild. Not to mention trees and flowers, coral and sponges, fungi and bacteria. How are we different from our pets? From other life forms? How are we alike? What do other life forms do better than us? 

Are other life forms aware of their environment? Do they feel? Do they emote? Do they think? Do they communicate? How? Do they use signs or symbols? How is their ‘language’ like/unlike ours? What is the role of family? What other social structures are operative? What about cultures, values, ethics? Advanced students may be introduced to the problem of Other Minds.

Welcome to the Dinoverse

A deep dive into the age of Giant Lizards. Where did they come from? How did they live? What happened to them? Will they come back? Can we bring them back? Should we? Students will learn about evolution, adaptation, and natural selection. Teachers will be encouraged to become familiar with Wonderful Life (Gould). Students will watch Jurassic Park, et al.

We’ll never be alone!

We are surrounded by things we’ve engineered. AI Bots are everywhere, embedded in everything. How are we different from our Bots? How are we alike? What do Bots do better than us? Are there things we do that Bots can’t do, now…or ever? 

Are AI Bots aware of their environment? Do they feel? Do they emote? Do they think? Do they communicate? How? Do they use signs or symbols? How is their ‘language’ like/unlike ours? Are they conscious? Can they be? Can they form social structures? Do they have cultures, values, ethics?

To bot or not to bot, that is never the question! Rather, can we bolt on bots to make ourselves better? “Johnny got 3 wrong on his math test; maybe he needs a brain implant!” teased Julie.

On the other hand, cells are populated with organelles descended from what once were independent organisms, assimilated into those cells and repurposed accordingly. Could that fate befall us? Students will be invited to watch episodes of Star Trek - The Next Generation, especially those that feature the Borg Collective, an early prototype for a post-organic civilization. Advanced students may be introduced to Alan Turing’s Imitation Game and John Searle’s Chinese Room.

Welcome to the Marvelverse

Stan Lee built a Universe, virtually from scratch. How did he do it? What are its features? It’s creatures? Does it have ‘laws’ (like our Universe)? What laws? How does ‘Marvel World’ compare with other ‘Other Worlds’, e.g. the worlds of Greek and Norse mythology, or of Kandinsky, Miro and Klee. Older students will be encouraged to explore the Many Worlds of Tolkien, either in film or in print. Finally, students will be encouraged to ‘create’ their own worlds, individually or in teams. This year’s science project: Create a Universe!

Welcome to the Antiverse

Traditionally, school has been about learning how things work. And you can do that at the Wonder School as well. But not everything does work, does it? The world is full of riddles and paradoxes and ‘unexplained phenomena’, and we’ll explore those here…at age appropriate levels, of course. Students may wish to grapple with Zeno, Godel, and/or Heisenberg; they’ll all surely want to pat Schoedinger’s cat. From UFOs to ESP to Crop Circles – it’s all on the table. 

Advanced students may wish to look into non-Euclidean geometries, non-orientable topologies (Mobius Strips), unreal numbers, etc. Episodes of Dr. Who (featuring the TARDIS) will be available for viewing. Note: there’s a Nobel waiting for the Wonder School student who resolves the problem of Quantum Gravity.   

We all Live in a Yellow Submarine

Students will view the Beatles’ 1968 film as an example of late 20th century mythology. Younger students will romp through the film’s many ‘alternate worlds’, imagining themselves confronting its various challenges. Older students will explore the film’s ground breaking ideas in biology, cosmology, physics, and metaphysics. They will compare the Beatles’ journey with ancient prototypes such as the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, the Grail Legend, and the Crusades. Finally, all students will ask, “What is mythology anyway? Does it still play a role in our world?”  

Of course, this is just the surface of the stuff our classes will explore. But what about the pesky 3 Rs? Can you do honors level work without the ability to read or do arithmetic? Of course not! So we’ll have special skill workshops. When a student wants to learn to read or write or do math, we’ll have resource rooms available for them…but the impetus to learn must come from the students themselves.

James Joyce (Ulysses) described the world as ‘signs we are here to read’. The Wonder School takes Joyce seriously. We trust our students to pick out the signs; we’ll help them read.


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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