What Makes A Good Human?: Curiosity

If you’ve been reading so far, you might not be convinced with vigilance or play as being important and that love does not conquer all.  As I said, my goal here is not to make any one quality more important than the other, and I hope with this topic I will convince you that life isn’t all about love.

As natural as our capacity to love, is our inherent curiosity about the world.  If you’ve had children, and hopefully paid attention to them, one of the first things you will notice about them is how curious they are.  From simply being curious about who you are when they start seeing 6 inches beyond their face, to be curious about what this thing called a hand is, to starting to interact and test objects out as they begin to grasp them.  They want to explore, they experiment with sounds, they like to watch things fall, taste different things, and they learn by watching you and then imitating.  Curiosity is learning.  The reason why I call this curiosity over learning is that when you say learning people tend to think of book learning or school learning, but learning is far more than that.  And sadly in my experience our education system today tends to squash a child’s natural curiosity in favor of more directed learning for the purposes of getting funding for the school and for you to supposedly get a good paying job.  I remember one time I gave a talk on tornado safety to a group of 2nd graders, I did not even get to start my presentation before a bunch of little hands went up to ask questions.  A lot of them were nonsensical but I loved it all, because it was clear that they were curious and questions seemed to just burst out of them.  In retrospect I was simply not prepared for that level of curiosity.  At the university level I can go through an entire lecture without 1 in a 100 students raising their hand to ask a question about how things work.  Curiosity is an important natural trait that  forces us to ask questions to ourselves and others.  As a society we need to make sure we foster this trait and not suppress it.

As a professor I have been in school for almost my entire life either as a student or a teacher; 37/41 years to be exact.  Obviously I love it, because I love to learn, but I’m not so institutionalized to believe that this is where I’ve done the entirety of my learning.  Now I know there are all sorts of great texts and books written about learning and how we learn, but I don’t want to expound too much on things you can read elsewhere, but I’d rather focus on why learning is important and the different ways we can feed our curiosity.

One important type of learning is purely experiential.  This is the type of learning that leads to wisdom.  Regardless of how much knowledge you accumulate in your head until you actually apply it, you can only understand it really in a theoretical way.  By actively experiencing something through our senses  And of course we can continue this sort of learning throughout our lives through doing.  Whether through learning different hands on skills, trying new foods and cooking new recipes, learning to play an instrument and listening to new music, and traveling.

Now I’d like to spend a little bit more time on traveling.  Certainly traveling to things like museums or traveling to any sort of wonder of nature can be a learning experience.  It can be very fulfilling in the additional for the additional sensory input you gain,  but in some ways is very similar to book learning.  I speak very personally here, but I believe traveling to places different from your everyday world is a very important learning experience. Traveling to a different country is the best way to understand what different societies, cultures and people are like.  There is learning about people of different faiths, different values, and different perspectives.  Curiosity drives us to explore the world, and the world has more to teach you than you think.

In my blog post about love in this series, I talked about how empathy needs to be fed.  Empathy can be broken up into two categories (as illustrated by this great video) into affective empathy and cognitive empathy.  Affective empathy is the compassion we feel when we observe the suffering from another.  Cognitive empathy however is the empathy we gain through learning about others, putting ourselves in their situation, and trying to see something from their perspective.  Something the world could surely use more of.  It is this type of empathy that we can develop through being curious about others regardless of whether they are close to home or far away.  The important thing is to try and know a diverse group of people.   If we can understand someone else’s troubles, pains, and/or suffering, even without going through it ourselves, we are more likely to want to help raise those people up than to allow a situation to continue that harms them.  Many times we are responsible for that harm without even realizing it.  I find it interesting how many politicians change their stance on homosexuality upon finding out that their son or daughter has come out as gay.  The more we intimately know someone the less likely we are to do any action that causes them harm.  How our actions cause harm is the basis of morality.  Thus, actively learning about others makes for a more moral society.

Curiosity also allows us to build our intellect.  For most of us we have done this formally for many years.  Intellectual pursuits, with the exception of those with a clear goal of what they want to achieve in life, often don’t seem to have much value in our day to day lives.  The oft heard complaint, “when am I ever going to use this” speaks to this disconnect between what we learn and what use every day.  Given the wide variety of interests amongst individuals it is unlikely that any one person will feel that everything they are learning has value.  The learning of knowledge, however, is always teaching you one important lesson.  And that’s how to learn.  The more you learn, the more easily you will be able to learn new things.  Humanity has been around for a long time.  It would be nearly impossible to determine a set of knowledge that was important for everybody.  It may also be true that the purpose of school is also to introduce you to things that you don’t know anything about, but might be important to you, that might inspire you and turn into a passion.  The large accumulation of knowledge through human history also means that most of the first things you will learn our foundational and must be built upon to realize their application and use.  Thus diligence plays an important role in learning.

In terms of what knowledge you should learn, in general a breadth of knowledge is best.  Regardless of what your passion might be, it is clear for a democracy to truly be successful it requires people to be knowledgeable about a wide range of issues. But even beyond its value in politics, life is never really about one thing.  One of the ways that you connect with people you meet is by having the knowledge to understand the basics of their interests which would allow you to ask better questions.  When we let our curious nature, then people notice the genuine interest you have for the knowledge base that they have which makes people feel closer and may cause them to become curious about you.  Many academic fields are focusing on interdisciplinary research, because as knowledge has advanced we see how many other areas of study the problems we face include.  For instance take a look at something like climate change.  The scientific basis itself requires knowledge of physics, meteorology, geology, oceanography, geography, biology, and statistics.  Then if we want to act on the issue of climate change we need to understand things like economics, communications, commerce, law, education, emergency management, etc.  Of course one can’t know everything about everything, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try. 🙂

Is there a dark side to curiosity? I honestly don’t see much of a downside to always being curious.  The only thing that comes to mind is the expanded ego that might come from knowing a lot of things in comparison with others.  The battle against such conceit is dealt with in the next post in this series.

The most important thing to remember is that time spent learning is never wasted and you should never stop.  There are a variety ways we can learn, there is a multitude of people and knowledge to learn from, and it is the best way to continue to grow in an ever changing world.  Being curious is a perfectly natural drive from the day we are born and it requires only an effort of maintenance than an effort in development.  Adults I meet who have that same thirst for knowledge as those 7 year olds in the 2nd grade are always some of the most thoughtful, and enjoyable people to be around.  The best part of traveling on that road of knowledge is that single roads branch in many directions and you never know where you might end up.

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