More on this thing we call Curiosity

On the PyRP unit we have been given various things to study on the subject of Curiosity – the Shulman and Schmitt & Lahroodi articles I wrote about earlier, and the following piece by Donald Schön:

Schön, D. A. 1992. The Theory of Enquiry: Dewey’s Legacy to Education. Curriculum Inquiry 22: 2. pp120-137

We were invited to answer the following questions:

  • What does curiosity mean to the writers?
  • What does curiosity mean to you? What are you curious about in your study? Why are you curious about it?
  • How does Schmitt & Lahroodi’s view of curiosity relate to Schön & Shulman’s view of inquiry?

What does curiosity mean to Schmitt & Lahroodi? Well… they make a clear distinction between intellectual curiosity and other (lower?) forms of it, and they describe curiosity as ‘motivationally original’. For example, I may be very keen to know where on the next train the bike carriage is situated, but this is driven by practical necessity, and perhaps therefore not ‘motivationally original’. I may also wonder why this information is so hard to get hold of, which at first does seem like an example of motivationally original curiosity. However, if I interrogate my sense of wonder I realise that my desired outcome in uncovering the flaws in the system would be to highlight how they could be fixed, so that from then on I (and everyone else) *will* know where the bike carriage is.

I’m struggling to think of an example of curiosity that is clearly original in its motivation. To me there has to be a point beyond curiosity itself; why am I bothered? If there’s no practical reason to be bothered about it, I tend not to be. Take for example my friend Ian. One of Ian’s quirks is that he refuses to reveal to anyone how old he his. I’m not remotely curious about how old he is, because it doesn’t matter (it’s fairly obvious that he’s a similar age to me). I was curious about why he is so cagey about it, because – as John L. Locke (1999) points out – you need to understand someone’s fears and desires in order to know whether you can trust them.

A lot of our friends do seem to be curious about Ian’s chronological age. And if you ask them why, they focus on the trust issue; they have heard Ian’s take on why he keeps it a secret, but they don’t understand it. This retards and frustrates the process of learning to trust him, and they want to be able to do this, because despite his idiosyncracies (clearly the pot calling the kettle black here, I get it), he is a really nice guy. So, while their apparent desire to know his age manifests itself outwardly as curiosity, I’m not sure it is curiosity at all.

I guess my point is that as far as I can see there is always a point (to curiosity), and that disciplined, intellectual curiosity usually demands that we are explicit about its aims and significance, as opposed to lower forms – ‘what does soil taste like?’ ‘what happens if I push this button?’ – where we don’t have to be. Actually, I wonder whether there is an element of ‘how will people react if I eat soil/push this button’… which is a more interesting question, I think.

I wrote about the Shulman piece earlier – it was my favourite of the three.

There was something about the Schön article that made me not want to write about it at first. Having found The Reflective Practitioner off-puttingly smug, I initially found Schön’s more individualist perspective irritating when juxtaposed with Shulman’s perspective of research as collective endeavour. Schön’s talk of professional confidence and enjoyment, abandonment and alienation seemed rather irrelevant to me at the time of reading. However, coming back to it having looked again at Dewey and also digested some more literature on educational research, the idea of the university, and philosophy more generally, I think there is much more useful stuff in here than I first thought, especially when considering my own research project, my motivations for doing it and what it might mean for others. When I made my original notes on the three articles (and on the movie Erin Brockovich, which we were also asked to watch) I focused on the dichotomy between individualist and collectivist motivations for enquiry, and there is another (shorter) post on that still to come.

I did some of my own reading around the subject of curiosity too. Last term I randomly went along to a free creative thinking masterclass run by local semi-social enterprise Reluctantly Brave (whose watchword is ‘considerate capitalism’?!), and it turned out to be very good. I expected it to be more participatory than it was, but the speakers were interesting and inspiring and there was enough authenticity and originality in there to balance out the cliches. I went away with a packed page of notes and some reading suggestions, one of which was Ian Leslie’s book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It.

Leslie’s educational philosophy has similarities with a lot of the things I’ve been reading recently on (specifically against) value in the humanities (e.g. Hogan, Collini, Maskell & Robinson), many of which make a strong case for the intrinsic value of education. Presumably in in attempt to shift more copies, Leslie’s publisher opts for the blurb: ‘curious people tend to be smarter, more creative and more successful…’, which places the book in a more neoliberal frame than perhaps Leslie was going for. The debate about ‘how to describe the relevance of the humanities to a culture we in the humanities are (and must be) critical of’ (a comment by user 12094478 in response to a rather interesting article on how a technologist transformed his career by way of a PhD in philosophy) continues to rage…

The big thing I took away from reading Curious was the idea of the ‘Foxhog’. The long-running classification of people into ‘foxes’ and ‘hedgehogs’ is attributed to a fragment by the Greek poet Archilochus: ‘a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing’. In Isaiah Berlin’s essay the Fox and the Hedgehog, Berlin proposes two different categories of thinker/writer; those who view the world through the lens of one defining idea (hedgehog), or those who draw on a range of ideas and experiences (fox). My understanding is that the key issue for Berlin – though he never intended the essay to be taken very seriously – was one of self-awareness and acceptance; if you are by nature a fox, but strive to be a hedgehog (he uses the example of Tolstoy), then this will cause you significant distress.

Leslie doesn’t go down this route. He proposes that in order to be ‘highly successful’ (whatever that means), we need to nurture both ways of being; to develop a specialist view of the world along with a broad range of knowledge that enables one to empathise, connect and adapt. This mode of being can be envisaged as a capital ‘T’, signifying breadth combined with depth.

This way of thinking has had a significant influence on my studies this term; I have branched out from the specific literature on the Idea of the University and read some more general books on philosophy (and on relationships, and psychedelic experience… but that’s another story). Some of it is non-academic literature that I can’t imagine citing in my thesis, but that’s the point. It enables me to take a broader view of what I’m doing, and to see connections I didn’t see before. Some of it is a lot more heavy-going – I gave up on Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and still haven’t opened MacIntyre’s After Virtue. But not understanding something, beyond being interesting in itself, certainly doesn’t kill my curiosity – it sustains it.

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2 Responses to More on this thing we call Curiosity

  1. Annie Haight says:

    Hi Lindsay,
    I’m not sure this is exactly the right post to leave this note in, but I’ll do it now so I don’t forget. At Roger Griffin’s recent public lecture (on terrorism, as it happens) he mentioned Foucault’s notion of heterotopia. I haven’t had a change yet to check this out, but I remember that some of your research intentions are found on optimistic hopes for positive change in universities, and I wondered if it might be informative to compare the concepts of heterotopia and utopia.

    • Definitely an interesting lead – thanks Annie! I have some serious decision-making to do regarding my aims and methodology, which is what I’m going to focus on right now… but will bank this for the literature review!

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