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The New ‘Magic School Bus’ Still Sees Knowledge as a Gateway to Wonder
Change is hard—like, super hard.
That’s the theme of the first episode of Netflix’s reboot series The Magic School Bus Rides Again. The episode was a rebuttal aimed squarely at the anticipated backlash from those of us who grew up reading the original books and watching the original cartoon. And it’s true: The show is different—new storylines, a new Ms. Frizzle (gasp!), and digital animation rather than the classic cel style. If ’90s kids can get past the cosmetic differences, though, we’ll find that the charm of The Magic School Bus remains.
The genius of the franchise, though, has never been in the things Netflix changed, but in what they kept: the way in which Ms. Frizzle and her class approach the wonders of the natural world. Though the eponymous school bus is, as it always was, able to transport the kids across space and time, Ms. Frizzle’s students are never more amazed at the magic of the bus than at the complexity and order of the world.
Far from distracting the students, the bus’s magic only aids the class in their pursuit of truth. By, say, shrinking into a raindrop, they’re not only able to know about environmental science—they’re able, in some sense, to know environmental science personally. The class never remains distant or removed from the world. Rather, they lovingly enter into the episode’s subject, literally encountering the world from the inside.
This intimate way of teaching is refreshing at a time in which science education too often prizes “objectivity” above all else. Rather than entering a garden to study a flower, the objectivist cuts the flower open in his lab, seeking to understand the flower’s totality by dissecting its parts. If Ms. Frizzle learns by joining in a thing’s life, the objectivist learns by taking its life. For the objectivist, science is not about marveling at matter so much as it’s about mastering it. The universe is no doubt a complex code—but our job is to crack it, not revel in its complexity.
In his wonderful book The Relevance of Physics, Stanley L. Jaki shows how modernity “depersonalized” science in such a way. Before one can “do science,” modernists argued, one must stand back from the world, obtaining a state of neutral objectivity. The coldness of our study is necessitated by the chillness of our subject; namely, nature. Says Jaki, “It was as if one were to consider the beautiful display on the stage of nature a poetic disguise and look for the ultimate reality in the ugly, soulless mesh of ropes, pulleys, and levers found backstage.”
Taking Jaki’s theatrical illustration further, our belief (or lack thereof) in a divine Director influences our view of the play (i.e., nature)—and the play can likewise lead us to a deeper understanding of the Director. Theologians have long recognized this mutually conversant relationship between “general” and “special” revelation. Tertullian, for instance, captures the dynamism well: “God,” he wrote, “first sent forth nature as a teacher, intending also to send prophecy next, so that you, a disciple of nature, might more easily believe prophecy.” Unfortunately, Christians often listen to this dialog with one ear, sensitive to the ways nature can inform our theology, but deaf to the ways in which our theology informs our view of nature.
Again, Jaki’s analogy is helpful: If there is no Director, then the galaxy we’ve happened upon is simply an incident—full of drama, no doubt, but as devoid of structure as it is of a script. What we see historically is that our method of scientific inquiry became depersonalized at exactly the same time as our view of the universe became depersonalized. If there is no Director, there is no play; if there is no play, we cease leaning into the movements of the world as interpreters and instead adopt the reclining posture of observers.
This is not to say the objectivist approach to science is all bad or will never lead the student to be amazed at nature—it surely can. But the method of inquiry practiced in The Magic School Bus invites one to move beyond amazement to thankfulness. At the end of each episode, after the students have gained a new insight, there is a kinetic, indescribable energy in the classroom. It almost reaches articulation when the students—full of wonder at the world—thank Ms. Frizzle for their experience. But even this moment, in all its earnest beauty, doesn’t do justice to the class’s seeming reverence. No doubt they’re thankful for Ms. Frizzle, as they are thankful for the world that they now understand at a deeper level—but to whom are they thankful?
Philosopher David McPherson is surly correct in saying, “What we need—as reflective, meaning-seeking beings—is an ontology that can make sense of the phenomenology, where the phenomenology is justified to be a fitting response to the way the world is (viz. its sacred or reverence-worthy character).” While The Magic School Bus never transports the class into the incorporeal realm to answer that ontological question, the way in which Ms. Frizzle approaches the world is nevertheless supported by a particular metaphysic—one hostile to the materialistic scientism of the objectivist. The latter approaches the world as chaos; the former approaches the world as cosmos. Ms. Frizzle’s pedagogy depends upon the “inner truth” of all things, in Augustinian terms.
This peculiar posture toward science allows Ms. Frizzle to lead her students to a deeper sort of learning than the kind offered by objectivism. Rather than performing various experiments upon nature, Ms. Frizzle facilitates experiences within Creation. And thanks to Netflix, we can once again buckle up and take a seat in her classroom, experiencing anew the magic found in not only an old school bus, but also the world itself.
Dustin Messer teaches theology at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, Texas, and is on the preaching team at Christ Church (PCA) in Carrollton, Texas. Additionally, Dustin is currently a fellow at both the National Review Institute–Dallas and the Center for Cultural Leadership. Before starting his doctoral work in religion at La Salle University, Dustin graduated from Boyce College and Covenant Theological Seminary.