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100. Curiosity and Staying out of Trouble July 8, 2012

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Uncategorized.

When, as children, do we first start to worry about making mistakes, about getting into trouble? I remember overhearing a conversation in another room between by daughter and her cousin when they were both quite small. It went like this:

– Let’s jump on the bed!

– I don’t think we’re supposed to do that.

– I know.

Like her mother, my daughter was the worrier. But what was the risk here?  The scolding as a parent or grandparent forces the game to end? For one girl, that was a small price to pay for a few moments of fun, but for my daughter, the risk seemed somewhat greater than that. For whatever reasons, she had a vested interest in our good opinion of her. She didn’t want us to be disappointed in her.

I’ve been thinking lately about curiosity and wondering if we are really sparking curiosity in teaching, or if some of our educational and social systems are more likely to discourage curiosity in trying to maintain a social order and keep people safe.

Consider these common expressions in the USA:

  • Curiosity killed the cat.
  • A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
  • Mind your own business.

Do we becomes less curious because we are too concerned about the social implications of our actions, or because we avoid doing things that seem risky either physically or socially? Add to that the concerns that schools and other educational organizations have concerning legal liability issues, and we may suppose that curiosity will suffer.

Those who have studied curiosity, notably Todd Kashdan and his colleagues, suggest that, while anxiety may prevent exploration, those who are curious who and feel confident that they have the capacity to cope and make sense of the situation will pursue new knowledge in spite of anxious feelings. Measuring curiosity is still a work in progress, they say, but you can find their Curiosity and Exploration Inventory (CEI-II) on line and see for yourself how curious you are.

Going abroad for study, for work, or for adventure is often prompted by curiosity and may entail some risk. Reading Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison’s essay this morning in the New York Times Sunday Review reminded me that the challenge of finding my way back when I get lost, of managing to speak with others in their language, or of grappling with an inscrutable bureaucracy is part of the adventure. These days my work doesn’t send me abroad anymore, but the relationships I’ve built over the years will continue to do so. I also always discover new things about these other places and learn more about who I am.

Even more thought provoking was the person from Oregon who commented online in response to Stavans and Ellison, worrying about Westerners who might exploit an exotic destination for tourism or to find themselves, reminiscent of Anthony Ogden’s Colonial Student. Student exchange programs, undergraduate study abroad programs, and even the geographic expeditions of early explorers have often been seen as activities of the elite given that such experiences require resources that are beyond most of the earth’s population. Another essay in today’s Sunday Review by Shamus Khan describes the “New Elitists” as cultural omnivores who relish having a wide range of tastes and experiences, something he notes that is not accessible to everyone. Though Khan didn’t mention it directly, I’m sure that study abroad would be seen as another avenue by which the cultural omnivores absorb new tastes and experiences making them different from the masses.

I don’t at this point have a response to these concerns about inequality, but I find them interesting and worthy of consideration.



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