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“Awaking Wonder”: Sally Clarkson and Joy Clarkson on the Domestic Church

October 26, 2020


2020 has been a year of upheaval for families with regard to their children’s education and formation. While many children continue to attend school at least partly online, some families have decided to step into full-time homeschooling, and all Christian parents have had to reckon with reduced access to local religious education programs. However, this disruption, difficult as it is, does have the potential to effect positive change, with families rediscovering the domestic church and their roles within it, and with parents recognizing new options for providing a strong education for their children.

So, it is particularly good timing to see the appearance of Sally Clarkson’s newest book, Awaking Wonder: Opening Your Child’s Heart to the Beauty of Learning. Sally is the author of The Lifegiving Home and, with her husband Clay, the co-founder of Whole Heart Ministries, which focuses on encouraging Christian discipleship and formation in families. She and Clay also homeschooled all four of their now-adult children. I was pleased to be able to do a joint interview with Sally and her daughter Joy, who is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, and thus to get the perspective of both a mother-teacher and a daughter-student!

HEO: Why is wonder important in education?

SC: Every child is a miracle, a gift from God.  Each has a vast capacity to imagine, to create, to grow intellectually, to love. Each one has potential to become a strong, vibrant, healthy adult with mind, heart, body, and spirit alive and flourishing. A wonder-filled education is not just about intellect, but encompasses moral foundations, habits, worldview, relationship modeling, manners. In other words, when we seek to intentionally awaken wonder in our children, we are looking at their whole selves—body, mind, and spirit. We open their story of life to possibilities of living a virtuous life filled with goodness, loveliness, possibility.

Capturing a student’s sense of wonder in education actively engages his involvement in knowing, discovering, synthesizing what he is learning. A child fashioned by a wonder-filled life will cultivate inner strength, a confidence in his own ability to think, evaluate, and know. Wonder is the engine that drives curiosity and shapes a robust intellect. When a child is driven to understand and to know, it gives him a sort of power and confidence to become a part of knowing and exploring his world. Rather than just giving rote facts and details to memorize, we engage our children in a broader, more beautiful imagining of their intellectual world.

JC:  Wonder is important in education because it teaches us to regard the world in a posture of humility and openness, to see learning as an endeavor of discovery, delight, and even worship. Education is comprised not only of the knowledge you impart to students but the way you teach them to regard the world. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis says that one of the roles of the educator is to “inculcate just sentiments,” and wonder, I would argue, is a just sentiment with which to approach a world as mysterious, complex, beautiful, troubled, and interesting as our own.

But there are forms of education that do not begin in an attitude of attentive, amazed humility, but in an urgency to memorize, master, and contain. When books are vivisected for an answer on a quiz instead of enjoyed, discussed, and relished, students learn to hate reading. When math is merely the hurdle to be crossed on our way to adulthood, rather than the mystery that underpins the natural world, it becomes a chore.

This has a spiritual dimension—is the world a place created by God, bursting with meaning, knowledge, and beauty? Or merely a complex machine to be mastered and manipulated? One of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, puts it this way: “To reduce life to the scope of our understanding . . . is to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale. This is to give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity to despair.” I think an education that is not rooted in wonder is prone to bring students toward this “proximity to despair.” When, instead, education is driven by the engine of wonder (as my mother puts it in her book), education becomes a lifelong habit of discovery.

HEO: I appreciated the way that Sally challenges the default assumption that students learn best in age-segregated groups. Joy, what are your thoughts as a student?

JC: It makes a certain sense to have grades and grade levels when you are attempting to shepherd a group of students with hugely diverse abilities and educational backgrounds. But when you’re shepherding only four children (as my parents were), the goals, needs, and constraints are different. When my parents chose to educate us at home, my parents simply put aside the question, “How can we replicate what people do at school?” And instead asked, “How can my children learn best in the environment of our home?” They treated our home as a laboratory of learning; education was not a thing that happened at particular times on particular days but which grew naturally from the environment of wonder, discussion, literary enjoyment of our home.

A strength of this was the sense of educational camaraderie I shared with my (much older) siblings because we weren’t divided into grades. As the youngest child, I was privy to the books, subjects, and skills in which my siblings (six, eight, and eleven years older) were immersed. Naturally, my curiosity often led me to learn with them. It demolished any artificial boundaries of what I could and couldn’t read according to my age. I was able to access and enjoy books, concepts, and skills that were supposedly beyond my “grade level,” growing as fast as felt comfortable and healthy to me and my parents.

Alternatively, if there was a subject in which I was not quite as skilled (ahem—math!), there was not the sense of shame that comes with “failing a grade.” I was able to progress at my own pace, master things as my intellectual, emotional, and social ability could manage. The goal was not for me to achieve a particular grade, or pass a suitable level, but to excel as far as I could given the capacities God had granted me, in all my uniqueness.

HEO: Sally, could you explain what you mean by the value of “cultural expressions at home”?

SC: Home is the world in which children learn about the scope of life. It can also reflect the dimension and vastness of God as Creator. In a sense, we reflect God’s artistic nature through what we imagine and design inside the walls of our home. I sought to create an atmosphere of life in every nook and cranny of each of the rooms. The artifacts collected there included hundreds of books including art, biographies, fiction, picture books, and magazines—with a variety of each in baskets all over the house—framed art, photographs of favorite memories, music CDs played over and over at each moment of the day, piano, guitar, games, seasonal decor, favorite foods, and tea cups and mugs for gallons of tea drunk every day.

Routines and rhythms also reflected the contour of delight, through dinner table discussions over favorite meals, watching selected movies and talking about them over popcorn, attending concerts and plays on special occasions, sitting out on our mountain deck by a tiny fireplace, discussing life together under the stars, early morning hikes in the mountains, devotions on the front porch as we sipped a warm drink and swayed in our rocking chairs. All of these life and cultural expressions filled the thoughts and memories of our children and gave us a sense of community around mutually loved messages and values we had shared together. Crafting a life-filled home is a grand work that considers our unique personalities, preferences, values. Each home will be different, but will reflect what is valued in the world inside its walls.

HEO: Sally and Joy, thank you very much for this insightful interview! Any last comments or things you’d like to add?

JC: My parents’ approach to education motivated me to learn for the sake of learning (for the Wonder of it all!), and taught me to see education as something that was a part of growing into my fullness as a person, rather than a series of pass or fail levels through which one proceeded on the road to adulthood and worldly success. As I wade into the waters of secondary education myself, getting to teach undergraduate students, I see how important this mindset is. There is a marked difference between the students who see an essay as a hurdle they must leap to secure a good grade, and those who see it as an opportunity to join in the adventure of learning, to join in the conversation about truth, goodness, and beauty.

SC: Often, we think of education in a reductive way—the facts we need to memorize and know, the subjects we need to cover. Yet, because we were made in God’s likeness, we were all created to know, to imagine, to create, to engage in the great ideas and virtues of life. To awaken our children’s wonder about him and about his purposes and world, means that we will also be following a vibrant path of education. Education is about coming to know and experience reality and truth in all facets of life.

Because education is about preparing the whole person, heart, mind, soul, body to grow fully into their capacity, to prepare them for a strong, vibrant life, it also pushed me to stretch into my own capacity. Taking the role of teacher shaped my own life as much as it did theirs. The best part is that this journey was that in the shaping of our little community of Clarksons, we shaped deep friendships, shared memories, and a place where we would forever belong to one another.