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  • Patrick Mullane

Is curiosity dead?

The lack of curiosity among so many isn't just sad, it's dangerous.

In my memoir, The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle: Growing Up an Astronaut's Kid in the Glorious 80s, I note in several places how the most important gift my father gave me was this: a sense of curiosity about virtually everything. Dad would constantly wonder out loud and in the presence of his children about both the mundane and the weighty: I wonder how far away that star is? I wonder how a toaster works? I wonder how many pounds that airplane weighs?

I grew up thinking that all fathers talked like this and that all children took on the trait as their own. It wasn't a stretch to assume this. After all, children are inherently curious. Watch anyone under the age of about seven and you'll watch a human being that sees the world as a palette teeming with questions to be answered. Those who have kids know what I'm talking about - remember the phase when every answer you gave to a question was met with, "Why?"

Unfortunately, as most people age, this drive to understand the world seems to fade. And that realization leaves me sad and a little distraught about the future. Curiosity - particularly after we finish our compulsory schooling - is the thing that drives learning. And learning makes us better. It makes us better parents. It makes us better citizens. It makes us better teachers of others. It makes us better business people. It makes us better humans.

Why do so many lose what starts as a natural, uninhibited urge to learn, to understand the world and the things in it? I suppose part of the answer might actually lie in compulsory education. It's a rare student who doesn't find some aspect of a required curriculum to be the equivalent of medieval torture. In this way most educational systems run afoul of Plutarch's maxim that "a mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled." Oh how my foreign language teachers were trying to stuff my vessel! There was no fire in me to conjugate verbs in Spanish. But at least some courses stoked a flame in me. For those students that never get to nurture a glowing ember, learning may seem a chore to be avoided for the rest of their lives. And often it's avoided in all its forms, including reading.

Dad's curiosity manifests itself still today in mountain climbing - he's always asking, "I wonder where that trail leads?"

Few would argue against the idea that reading is the activity from which most learning springs. But so many people just don't do it. I blame technology. Want proof? Look no further than your last airplane trip. Twenty years ago, when people were trapped on a plane, they had three options to occupy their time: 1) sleeping, 2) talking to somebody, or 3) reading a book. But now, a huge majority of people are watching entertainment using either the airline's in-flight system or their own device. This trend continues when people are on the ground - our attention is drawn in so many directions because of endless entertainment and social media options. This is not good; because if you are not pushing yourself to read books from across the spectrum (fiction, biography, history, etc.) you are - by default - letting entertainment and social media become your sources of learning. And no matter your political views or personal tastes, I think we can agree that this is not healthy. Social media makes it too easy to be intellectually lazy, to hear only the voices of your own tribe, to believe anything - no matter how bizarre - that substantiates your point of view.

It is quite literally impossible to be a critical thinker without first having curiosity If reading spawns learning, then learning spawns critical thinking. This is doubly true if you read books that represent many viewpoints. But what, exactly, is critical thinking? The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines it thus:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

That's a mouthful. Let me define it more succinctly but in a way that I think keeps with spirit of the foundation's definition - critical thinking is applying the scientific method to ideas. You may recall that the scientific method includes developing a hypothesis about something, testing the hypothesis through experimentation or research, and then reaching a conclusion based on those findings. It's a process to get you closer to the truth - closer to a sort of intellectual enlightenment.

With that definition in mind, let's turn back to the subject at hand: curiosity. You may have noticed based on the definition of critical thinking that it is quite literally impossible to be a critical thinker without first having curiosity. After all, why would you ever test a hypothesis if you don't question it's validity, if you aren't curious about why something is the way it is or is not the way you thought?

This then is why curiosity is so important. Curiosity begets learning, usually through reading, which fosters critical thinking, which arms us to understand the world and find the truth. It is the antidote to so much of what ails us today - conspiracy theories, tribalism, confusion, and doubt. There will always be questions unanswered, differences of opinion, and challenges to the orthodoxy. But curiosity on all sides is the way to a better and more just world.


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©2018 by Patrick Mullane - Author and Speaker.