Curiosity killed the cat

The title of this blog is one of the last vestiges we have in our culture that points to the danger of curiosity.  Most people, especially educators and parents, view curiosity as a virtue.  It is something to preserve and nurture in children as a necessary ingredient for learning, discovery and engagement.  It is something to be applauded since it affirms each child’s unique approach to the world and their ability to interact with their surroundings.

I was first challenged with regard to my view of curiosity through reading a book by Parker Palmer (1983), To know as we are known.  This book explores motivations for learning and the natural ends of those motivations.  In particular, two motivations for knowing are contrasted – motivations of power vs. motivations of compassion.  To know for reasons of power is to view knowledge as “real estate” (reality) acquired for personal use, success and influence, something you own and the more you own the better -notions of greediness and consumerism quickly come to mind.   Words associated with this motivation include fact (something made), theory (something viewed from a distance or as a spectator), and objective (standing over against).   The end of such knowing is ultimately destructive to both the knower and the known.  To own something is to partition it off from all other things, to change its “being” from that of a public gift given to all and related to all to something controlled and manipulated by a scarce few.  To be an “owner” is to deny your own being as given and to cut yourself off from the giver.

To be motivated by compassion is to enter into a covenental relationship with whatever/whomever “sits in the center and can be known”.  The expectation is that the knowing will transform both the known and the knower.  There is a sense of mutual reciprocity and awareness of the known as gift and mystery – something that can never be fully known or owned.  Words associated with this view of knowing include truth (troth), understanding (standing under), humility, and wisdom (life giving knowledge).  The end result of knowing motivated by compassion absolutely preserves the other’s freedom to be other by refusing to control or manipulate, attending to the truth of the other, and refusing to remove the other from the public commons.  As mentioned before on this blog, truly paying attention to the other or known (being the most generous and free act you can give) makes it impossible for you to impose or violate or sequester.

Where would curiosity fit in this story of motivations?  For Palmer it  has motivational origins that are amoral – neither for power nor for compassion.  However, Christian spirituality stemming from theological understandings and pagan philosophical thought has long believed that unless curiosity becomes “catechized” or “rightly ordered” it has the propensity to become disordered and default into a motivation for power because it feeds our inclination to see the world from an individualistic/need satisfying perspective.  Curiosity forgets that there are some things not given for us to know and that all we do know is a gift to be offered back to God and others.

I sometimes wonder why some of my students don’t ask more questions.  Maybe it is because their curiosity is rightly ordered, but I don’t think a rightly ordered curiosity means that you don’t ask questions (maybe just fewer and better questions).  To have a rightly ordered curiosity is more to do with the spirit qualifying those questions.  Does the question come from a love for what is already known or a hatred for what is unknown?  Griffiths (2009) says in his book, The intellectual appetite, that “...the curious…do not really love what they do not know.  It would be better to say that they hate what they do not know, because they would like that set to be null, an ambition to be realized only by coming to know everything.  Therefore, they wish to extinguish all unknowns.” (p. 20)

To set learners on a path of curiosity (to extinguish all unknowns) is, I believe, to set them on a path of despair and ultimate passivity as the only way to manage that despair – the set of unknowns will never be null.  No wonder learners stop asking questions and the questions they do ask become more and more instrumental or power motivated.  “How many words does it have to be?”  “How much is it worth?”  “What criteria will you be using to measure what I’ve done?”  It is not their fault.  They/we have been conditioned.

Educating with reverence assumes that all kinds of knowing are not equal and that it is good to think about how our practices order the intellectual appetite of our students.  Stay tuned for more thoughts on this topic and please share yours.

Griffiths, P. (2009).  The intellectual appetite:  a theological grammar.  Washington, DC:  The Catholic University of America Press.

Palmer, P. (1983).  To know as we are known:  a spirituality of education.  New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

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