October 16th, 2017

Where’s the Curiosity?


Curiosity - who, what, when, where and why

“To love the past may easily be an expression of the nostalgic romanticism of old men and old societies, a symptom of loss of faith and interest in the present or future.”
— E. H. Carr, What is History?

When I walk into a college classroom these days it is as quiet as libraries used to be. Every head is bowed and every thumb is scrolling away on a screen. There are few, if any, conversations between students. No one looks up until I take attendance. When the class is over the students depart as silently as they came. Even if they are drifting in the same direction, they rarely talk to one another. It’s almost impossible to catch the eye of a student walking toward me and, if I break the spell with a cheery “Hello!”, there is a startle reflex that reveals the depth of the self-isolation.

In one of his most famous essays, Michel Montaigne says, “To my taste the most fruitful and most natural exercise of our minds is conversation. I find the practice of it the most delightful activity in our lives.” He likens a good conversation to vigorous sparring, his “strong and solid opponent will attack me on the flanks, stick his lance in me right and left; his ideas send mine soaring.” There is joy in the friction of ideas, a closeness made possible by an unspoken willingness to play up and higher than one’s own level of thought. “In conversation,” says Montaigne, “the most painful quality is perfect harmony.”

Montaigne’s essay, “The Art of Conversation,” is a primer for civilized and vigorous conversation. It should be read and reread, taught at the high school level, and carried about in one’s pocket. I would be delighted if it were read into the Congressional Record, but its good-natured guidelines would be obliterated or simply ignored. We don’t know how to talk with one another about things that matter.

“You cannot teach a man that which he thinks he already knows,” said Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher who taught humility as a prerequisite to learning. Epictetus (55-135 A.D.) was striking at the arrogance that prevents us from even considering unfamiliar ideas. Today his words would be shrugged off: we make no claim to know but we know where to look it up—and that’s the end of it. No need to look elsewhere; the goal of education has become to simply tag what comes up in response to a query. Decades of teaching to the test and demanding quantifiable results have taught our students to take the quickest route to the first answer that presents itself on Google.

Montaigne, who positively reveled in being contradicted by another because “he is instructing me,” wouldn’t have known what to do with humility in conversation. “My thought so often contradicts and condemns itself that it is all one to me if someone else does so, seeing that I give to his refutation only such authority as I please.” Montaigne didn’t need to give up anything in order to learn from another, especially not pride, because what mattered to him in conversation was the diligence in finding the truth, no matter where it came from.

If Montaigne were here today, I would take issue with him about conversation and communication. Especially as it concerns conversation in schools and universities, I would ask him to look farther back and deeper down to the seed of learning, which is curiosity. Actually, come to think of it, Epictetus’ call for humility first could be set aside if only the student had curiosity.

In learning through curiosity, there is no need to curb one’s arrogance first. If we are truly curious, then arrogance plays no part in thwarting us in the pursuit of truth. Curiosity is the engine of learning: without it we wouldn’t be clothed, sitting at our computers, able to tap into the world’s knowledge at the touch of a screen. But finding the facts is only the beginning for the curious learner. Curiosity isn’t satisfied with just the facts, but hungers for meaning, context, and application beyond the immediate problem. Curiosity is the air that the sciences breathe, but it’s the heart that beats within the humanities.

I suspect that what generates even the briefest conversation among strangers is curiosity about what another is experiencing and feeling and thinking. Surely, it’s curiosity that could break through our ear-budded walls and lure us into conversation about . . . anything. Within the classroom, it’s curiosity that would go beyond the facts to ask not only how and where, but when—and most importantly—why. I do not see that kind of curiosity very often.

Recently, as I left a class in which the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the life’s work of one of his mentors, Myles Horton, was the subject of discussion, and in which only one student commented, asked questions, and generally showed the fire of curiosity, I decided I was not angry or frustrated or wounded or even nostalgic. I was wistful for the leap and thrust and joyful friction of real conversation.

Barry Casey teaches philosophy and ethics at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C. He also teaches public speaking at Stevenson University in Maryland.

  • goodsensecynic

    Although not (quite) as dispirited by the absence of intellectual curiosity among students (a pattern I’ve detected with initial alarm and now something close to resignation – I am, after all, entering my 50th year as a postsecondary teacher in private and public colleges and universities in the United States and Canada), I also worry a little about the arrogance of the educator.

    It was neither Montaigne nor Epictetus, but I recall someone saying that “the older we get, the better we were.” Granted, the fixation/addiction to the anti-social media has added something to the common complaints about “kids these days,” but I am not wholly convinced that they are all the dullards we deem them to be.

    Part of the problem may be the political decision to transition from “elite” (15% of high school grads went to college, pre-1945) to “mass” (50% of high school grads went to college, 1945-1985) to “universal” (85% of high school grads went to college (post-1985) … all numbers definitely approximate.

    The great democratic experiment (from which, as a pre-boomer, working class kid I benefited enormously both as a student and an academic), has had some serious problems including the redefinition of students as customers and college curriculum as a commodity.

    Accordingly, I wonder if Barry Casey, who has already attempted to “look farther back and deeper down to the seed of learning, which is curiosity” in his effort to describe and explain the current malaise, shouldn’t look even deeper than that. The answer to his question and the solution to the problem it betokens is not to be found “in” education, but in the issue of “what” education is purported/intended to be.

    That is a matter of social philosophy/policy which is, in turn, a matter of political economy. The material causes of the current problems (real and/or perceived) lie in the social relations of “late capitalism.” All else is (dare I use the word?) derivative.

    • college_prep

      I’m also not convinced they are dullards. However I do think that many
      people today tend to make judgments about others so quickly with little
      or no background that this forestalls conversation from the start. The
      phone addicts Casey describes may be desperate to connect with others,
      and not realize how shallow their attempts really are. Humans are much
      more expressive face-to-face and conversation is fulfilling, even if a
      bit argumentative. If a person is not used to this spirit of inquiry
      and dialogue (this differs from debate) due to lack of experience with
      it, then they’ll be taken aback and shy away from a conversation and
      this becomes self-fulfilling. As our schools become more connected to
      the Internet Tower of Babel maybe the art of conversation will have to
      be reinstated as an antidote to disaffection and depression driven by
      The Shallows, which of course is a good book by Nicholas Carr on this

      • Rebecca Potter

        I agree that educators may be part of the problem-and may have been for awhile. It is the academy that has spent centuries promulgating a canon for the humanities that is deeply entrenched in patriarchy, which our more open minded and tolerant students not only reject politically, but also find irrelevant personally. But is this new? Neither Montaigne, nor Epictetus went to college. Of course, I only know that (or even who these thinkers are) because of my humanist education.

          • Rebecca, as Diane Ravitch our national education reform historian has documented so well in her major works, educators are indeed part of the problem but more so “the system” (echoed by James Taylor Gatto). A patriarchy that excludes any voices is certainly part of this, more noticeably today perhaps than ever in the past. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be anything as yet that can effectively replace the canon that you mention. Relativism doesn’t cut it. A book I’m currently finishing up and may review is The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby. She now has a new book out also on the culture of lies, that we see every day in the news, being categorized as “fake news” in order to perpetuate that culture; certainly a patriarchy of the powerful! We need to move beyond gender, racism, power for its own sake, economies driven by overconsumption, etc. toward a new paradigm. One such is described by Brian Swimme of the Center for the Story of the Universe. He was a colleague of Thomas Berry.

          • Rebecca Potter

            Rick, Thank you for the thoughtful response, and the recommendation of Jacoby’s book. In my field, Literature, there has been a fascinating debate about Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a case study for this very issue. Today’s student is far less sympathetic of Hamlet’s struggle, finding the very foundations of his value system not just in need of critique; that approach has defined literary criticism for the last few decades. They find it important to reject the story, and refuse to validate it through critical engagement. However, there is no doubt that Hamlet contains so many valuable lessons for us all, some of which are particularly timely in light of politics today. Can you replace Hamlet? Should you? It is increasingly being identified as a crisis in the humanities- figuring out how to move beyond racism, gender, power for its own sake using the very stories that implicitly legitimize those things. It is chilling, though, how easily fake news is filling a gap as people search for ways to understand their world. Or as Barry Casey is pointing out, it is filled with silence.

  • Geneseo

    I’ve been teaching college biology for 25 years and have observed a steady, monotonic decline in student curiosity. It has taken a qualitative step downward in the past several years, probably because my current students have spent their entire lives in the land of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Teaching to the test has trained students to not look beyond the test. Which is rational behavior, if you perceive that your future prospects depend on your test performance. My students today are as bright as ever, but curiosity has been trained out of them by an educational system designed like a factory production line.