Risking curiosity

This struck a chord. I make no secret of being cursed with curiosity and it has come close to killing me a few times both metaphorically and literally (there was that high voltage probe on a Hewlett Packard scintillometer back in high school that wasn’t quite properly grounded).

Curiosity is not something greatly respected in our culture today and that is a dangerous thing. It makes you easier to manipulate. Hemingway’s advice on crap detectors applies to more than writers and appears to be in desparately short supply these days.

My only caveat here is that while I agree that “the pursuit of knowledge is never done,” that does not imply for me that there are no objective truths in the world. If I let go of this laptop in the TSA security line, it will hit the floor. That does complicate things because “agreeing to disagree” isn’t always an out in all conversations. There are “facts” that can be agreed on, but that doesn’t finish the conversation or the deeper search for truth.

Children are our best guides here. None of them need to be trained in the techniques of 7 whys (would that toddlers would stop at 7). After formal schooling, however, most of us need to rediscover what we naturally know how to do.

Can we teach the joy of thinking?. I have been blessed – and cursed – with a curious mind. I say cursed not simply because curiosity killed the cat, but because it makes it very difficult for me to understand people who seem to lack curiosity about themselves and the world around them. This difficulty causes me the most grief when, every fall, I am faced with students who appear to utterly lack curiosity. When I am in a good mood, I ask myself how that is even possible. When I am in poor humour, I wonder why they’ve bothered to go to university at all.

Sound harsh? Well, it probably is. And no doubt oversimplified. But here’s the thing: in a world where people are not equal in terms of interest, how can we teach wonder?

You see, I wonder all the time. Actually, I would need several lifetimes to understand all the things I wonder about. I don’t know how not to wonder. I keep a notebook that contains only questions – hundreds of them – which I share with my students whenever they say that can’t think of anything to research or write about. Colleagues have warned me that I am “giving away” my ideas for future research and, presumably, some sort of future glory. But for me, the beauty and the reward is in our ever-changing understandings – and it sure won’t be me who definitively sorts the world. I only hope there are enough people who keep asking hard questions.

I genuinely believe that the pursuit of knowledge is never done. This is, in part, related to my understanding that there is no absolute, determining, objective truth in the world – a position which obligates me to continue asking questions and forces me to acknowledge that no knowledge is neutral or impartial.

If the best we can offer is subjective, multiple, and partial truths, then learning and understanding requires critical thinking, the questioning of assumptions, self-reflection and self-awareness. In a world that doesn’t want to “waste time” with things other than “the facts,” it turns out that these inter-related practices are, by far, the hardest ones to teach. And I can’t help but to believe they are the most important. [Purse Lip Square Jaw]

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