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The Power of Why 

Your kids may annoy you with questions, but da Vinci was the same way.

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If you’re around an 8-year-old much, you know the word. With eyes wide open, and a sponge for a brain, they want answers. “Why is pop fizzy?” “Why do plants need dirt?” “Why do I have five toes?”


It’s a constant reminder of that basic need of humanity — to understand. In fact, “Why?” is the exact word old Aristotle would use to start his famous lectures at the Lyceum three centuries before Jesus lived. His basic question reverberated across nearly two millennia and was picked up in places like Italy as Europe crawled out of the Middle Ages. Nobody took hold of that Renaissance spirit more than Leonardo da Vinci, who will reach across the centuries himself and inspire even more people this summer in the remarkable new show at the MAC.

This is exactly the kind of event that proves our museum is indispensable; thanks are due to everyone who has stuck up for the MAC through these difficult times.

Da Vinci is kind of a surprising hero of Western civilization, as he really never finished much. He only left a couple dozen paintings, and few of his contraptions were ever built — just sketched in his many notebooks. For da Vinci, it’s his towering intellect that remains the work he is most remembered for.

While Aristotle was all about observing, categorizing and arriving at facts, da Vinci turned an important corner; he observed, categorized and imagined what else could be, like scuba diving gear or flying machines.

Today we want our kids to become outliers, as in the Malcolm Gladwell book, spending 10,000 hours to get really good at something. Tiger mothers force-feed hours of violin. Sports dads develop the next great baseball pitcher. But da Vinci makes an argument for another way. Maybe kids should learn a little about a lot of things — get as many answers to those “Why?” questions as they can. Maybe learning has no end point. Maybe it’s all about the journey.

In Latin they called it saper vedere — “learning how to see.” Da Vinci saw our world like nobody else, “full of yearning for the infinite,” as a later philosopher described his gift.

So while school’s out this summer, learning is definitely in session down at the MAC. Grown-ups can still benefit from seeing better, but it’s our kids who will find a kindred spirit in Leonardo da Vinci — somebody who never quite grew out of asking “Why?”

Ted S. McGregor Jr. is the Editor and Publisher of The Inlander.

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