Monday, May 16, 2005

Lack of Curiosity the Sign of Larger Problems

A little over a month ago, Rick Weiss wrote in the Washington Post about the apparent dwindling level of curiosity in this country. He was mourning NASA’s proposal to stop listening to Voyage just as it reached the outer limit of the Sun’s influence, but he pointed out that much scientific research funding these days is for research with the goal to produce something specific rather than to simply explore and see what comes out. I do think curiosity in this society is declining, but that it is a symptom, not a cause.

Curiosity is innate in humans. Yesterday at lunch, my best friend’s nine-month-old was constantly reaching out at my food, her food, the tray our food was on, my shirt, my nose, her knife and fork – no, baby, no touching knife and fork. He was doing this, not to be disruptive, but to learn about his environment. When he’s old enough to form complete sentences, he’ll probably ask a lot of questions. Because humans are naturally curious. Though that curiosity does tend to wear away as we age and get to know the world a little better, it never entirely goes away. At the very least, we’re curious about what our friends are up to or what will happen next on Survivor. But all out curiosity is going away. Why? We discourage it.

We are a cynical society. We have learned from our own experiences, our family’s experiences, and the experiences of everyone we’ve ever read or heard about. We sue each other for the slightest act of stupidity (whether it was ours or theirs). We always hear about one horrible thing or another on the news. And it’s made us all cynical and afraid, particularly when it comes to our children. Have you looked at a playground lately? There’s nothing higher than four feet off the ground. There’s nothing for children to challenge each other on. Kids can’t climb trees because they might fall. They can’t play outside by themselves because they might be kidnapped. They can’t run because they might trip. They aren’t allowed to push their own limits and find out for themselves what they are capable of. They are told what they are capable of and discouraged from finding out on their own.

While the above discouragements are probably also contributing to obesity, physical activity is not the only arena where curiosity is discouraged. Schools, particularly now with the Standards of Learning (as they are called in Virginia – known nationally as No Child Left Behind), have little room for curious students. They don’t have enough time to cover the material they are required to, much less go in to more depth about the material that students may ask about. Sure, you can point them to the library, but is it really encouraging to say “I don’t have time for this, go somewhere else and read about it”? Standardized testing basically tells kids “you need to know this and nothing more”. Yes, many parents encourage their children to learn outside the classroom. But unfortunately, many don’t. And the entire school system suffers for it.

Wow. I didn’t even mean for this to be about schools. Adults are guilty, too, of being unable to push their own limits. We want someone else to pay for their own irresponsibility, stupidity, and bad luck. It could be the government or some corporation we are going to sue. We are so into ourselves we don’t even seem to care what’s beyond our own wants and needs. At this point, it’s worse than a lack of curiosity. It’s a lack of interest in anything other than Me, Myself, and I. And I fear it will take a tremendous effort to fix, if it can be fixed at all.


Anonymous Walt said...

I will come back to revisit the actual point of your post, but one minor note for now:

Virginia's SOL tests aren't part of NCLB. They got started when Clinton was in office. I took a couple of them in 11th grade in spring 1996. They weren't for standards enforcement at the time, they were gathering "real" test results so they could establish the baseline standards for when they would count.

They may now satisfy the NCLB requirements, but they weren't built as such.

Sorry, completely worthless blather unrelated to your point. Ah'll be bahhk.

5/17/2005 12:51 PM  
Anonymous Harry said...

More like the culling of curiosity from the society.

Sometimes you just have to reach into the fire and get burned before you can learn that the fire is hot. And sometimes you have to let others do it for themselves.

I'll let you flip the coin to see which is harder to do.

5/17/2005 2:29 PM  
Blogger SpakKadi said...

I recognize that the SOL's are not the result of NCLB. In fact, Virginia is exempted from some, if not all, of NCLB's requirements because they already had a system in place (or were still in the process of putting one in). I just figured I'd give a frame of reference to any non-Virginia readers who wandered through.

5/17/2005 5:34 PM  

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