The value of (intellectual) curiosity

Schmitt, F. & Lahroodi, R. 2008. The epistemic value of curiosity. Educational Theory, 58 (2), pp125-147

This was a funny one. Here Schmitt and Lahroodi present a theorisation of the concept of curiosity from a philosophical perspective. Like the EdD session on mind & brain we had last year, I was confronted on reading this with the very different ways we have of thinking about thinking. I have a tendency – depending on what mood I’m in – to revert to the rather one-dimensional conception of the ‘mind’ I learned during my undergraduate biology degree; synonymous with the complex physical and chemical structures that make up the brain. But I am increasingly being shown other ways of conceptualising mind and thought; this week’s Pedagogy Reading Group meeting being a case in point, where we discussed Deleuze and metaphysics (the existence of non-physical entities, such as ideas). I’ve never had an issue with seeing ideas and abstract concepts as ‘real’; I just don’t think a conception of the mind as a complex web of electrochemical signals precludes that reality. I am probably being naive (again).

Schmitt and Lahroodi describe curiosity as ‘motivationally original’. I’m not 100% sure I see what they’re getting at here. I don’t think they are suggesting here that it has no extrinsic purpose. The sociobiologist in me sees a clear purpose. A desire to know more about the world and our surroundings (provided we don’t – like the proverbial cat – die from it) leads to learning, which enables us to take advantage of our surroundings to survive more effectively. Nietzsche takes the sociobiological argument further, proposing that our Darwinian animal drives are subdued by cultural values, resulting in a physiological depression that in our societies we attempt to overcome through moral development (see Wiener & Ramsay 2008).

The authors’ metaphor of hunger didn’t sit well with me; for a start, as they point out in the footnotes, curiosity is pleasant, hunger is not. My biological understanding is that feelings of hunger are triggered by a hormone called leptin that is released when we run out of readily-available glycogen and start drawing on our fat stores. That’s what ‘hunger’ means to me; and as far as I’m concerned if you’re not hungry in that sense then you’re not hungry; you’re just stuffing a hole (which happens).

I’ve got no problem with the words appetite or appetitive. The authors state that ‘curiosity is satisfied, and ceases, when one comes to know the topic’ (p129). I think it’s important to note that curiosity may also cease if one gets distracted by something more interesting or pressing (which the authors acknowledge later), or if the topic turns out to be too difficult, so enquiring into it ceases to be enjoyable.

I wondered if, by ‘motivationally original’, Schmitt and Lahroodi meant that we have no conscious extrinsic motivation; we may not be able to explain why we are curious about something. But I struggle with that idea too. In many cases I see my own curiosity as motivated by gaining a competitive advantage, or at least being able to hold my own in an argument. Ironically, I also believe very strongly that exposing what we don’t know is a fantastic learning tool (that’s why I have this blog). So I’m constantly in conflict with myself 😉 The authors claim that babies and young children cannot be said to be curious, as they have no conception of knowledge. While a very young child may not be capable of metacognition, or have the language to justify their curiosity, I don’t think we can say their desire for knowledge is not genuine, or even that they lack something of value. We learn more quickly in our first five years than at any other stage of our lives. Therefore I prefer Dewey’s model of the value of curiosity at different levels of development, and I see the organic level, with its low susceptibility to social norms and expectation, as having a very particular value that is potentially epistemic (Ken R0binson’s TED talk on divergent thinking springs to mind).

I struggle with the passivity of ‘having our attention drawn to something’ as I believe we ultimately decide what we focus on. Consciously or not, we make an assessment of risk before we enquire; not merely risk of harm to ourselves or others (remember the cat), but also the opportunity cost; what might we, or others, miss out on if we spending our time and effort enquiring into this? The film Erin Brockovich throws this question into sharp relief. Working all her waking hours to gather the evidence to win increased her family’s financial security, but meant she hardly saw them or her partner, who decided he’d had enough and walked out. The concept of opportunity cost has implications for both teaching and research; it explains why you can’t simply draw someone’s attention to something and expect them to be curious about it too; everyone’s opportunity cost will be different. Also, it will fluctuate; hence the vast number of abandoned PhDs.

I would say that even if I’m curious about something much more straightforward like a date or definition, I generally want to look it up myself than ask someone else. Maybe because I have trust issues.

Essentially, I can see what the authors are saying about the distinctiveness of ‘intellectual curiosity’ (as opposed to organic or social curiosity). I just feel that claiming intellectual curiosity has greater epistemic value than other forms is a bit of a circular argument. The paper certainly made me think about curiosity (and tenacity), but I struggled to relate it to myself and my thesis project; the conclusion is focused on the significance for teachers who wish to ‘ignite’ curiosity in their students – or at least to retard the natural reduction in curiosity that comes with age. Is my curiosity retarded? I’d like to think I am more curious about the world than I was in my self-centred youth!

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