Our Love-Hate Relationship with Curiosity

Curious GeorgeIn my work as a Sudbury educator, it seems every day I come across various hymns of praise to curiosity. Goodness knows I’ve contributed my share, highlighting the central role of innate curiosity in learning, creativity, and discovery. At least when it’s applied to young children, it would appear our culture can’t get enough of this magical elixir called curiosity.

Yet somewhere along the line, curiosity also got a very bad rep. Perhaps this is understandable—it did, after all, kill the cat. But curiosity has certainly been a career-booster to some: consider that legendary figure of children’s literature, Curious George. His notoriety stems from a chronic inability to leave things be, to avoid exploring beyond the limits established by the undoubtedly well-meaning Man in the Yellow Hat.

To me, it’s quite fascinating (though perhaps I, too, suffer from incorrigible curiosity) that the same trait would be both hailed as central to human nature and feared or scorned for its potential to incur nuisance and/or danger. I wonder if it’s going too far to see mythical overtones here: Pandora’s box and the Garden of Eden as cautionary tales regarding the hazards of a deep-seated desire to see what’s inside, to taste knowledge.

If we take curiosity as archetypal, as hard-wired into us by millennia of evolution—which seems a reasonable assumption—then the question becomes, what do we do with it? And here, I believe, we touch upon a key distinction between life-fearing and life-enhancing approaches to education.

There’s no disputing that curiosity can be messy and problematic; it’s not exactly on the best of terms with either orderliness or responsibility. A person in the throes of curiosity tends to possess their own sense of time, is prone to taking things apart, making messes, being noisy. As for overlooking the consequences of curiosity, our very culture often obsesses on whether something can be done and overlook whether it should be done.

And so, beyond a certain acceptance that the very youngest children must explore and play, many people advocate clamping down early and firmly on young people’s curiosity—or at least, managing and channeling it in adult-approved directions. This approach strives to manage curiosity so that children are exposed to the “right” things and protected from the “wrong” ones. A distinction is made between work and play, with the former praised as productive and the latter dismissed as “down time” (unless it’s being used by adults to teach something, but that’s really just work dressed up as play).

This, however, is a false dichotomy based on a limited perspective. Perhaps the linchpin of the Sudbury schooling model is the way it brings together freedom and responsibility in a highly fruitful balance. Our experience over fifty years proves that curiosity and creativity are not only compatible with respect and responsibility, but that these qualities cannot flourish without each other. We humans are naturally curious, and we are also social animals. We must, and can, establish societies where responsibility does not mean subservience or deference, where curiosity isn’t seen as anarchy or license.

Curiosity does not have to mean chaotic monkeys, cat-killing, unleashing plagues upon humanity, or Original Sin. In contrast, the essence of curiosity is a fundamental openness and wonder in all our encounters with life. It’s about accepting the miracles of who we are and what each moment brings, about embracing and creating, dancing with reality as it continually unfolds—all the while striving to remain mindful of the effects of our actions and take responsibility for those consequences.

A valuing of curiosity is one of many points of overlap I see between the Sudbury model and Zen. When properly valued, curiosity is not limited to the things we want to learn about: rather, it accepts and examines everything that comes. With practice, we can retain our innate curiosity even in the face of something as daunting and terrifying as death. When contemplating her own death, Charlotte Joko Beck is reported to have said, “This too is wonder.”1

I don’t mean to suggest that curiosity is literally or consistently a matter of life and death. I will, however, argue that it’s critical for us to accept the inherently human curiosity both of others and ourselves. Curiosity can be integrated successfully with mindfulness and responsibility as well as playfulness. It is possible to value the gifts of curiosity even while a regard for others and all life leads us to impose reasonable restraints upon it.

Not only are these things possible: the development of our children, and the long-term well-being of our culture and our planet, depend on our acquiring a healthier relationship with curiosity.

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1Follow this link, particularly the comment thread beneath the article, for more on whether these were actually “among Beck’s last words.”

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