In Praise of Curiosity

Photograph from inside the reconstructed room/installation piece  "Room No 2 1984" by Irina Nakhova. Tate Modern Museum, London
Inside “Room No 2 1984” by Irina Nakhova. Tate Modern Museum, London

It struck me this week that curiosity—the time and space necessary for nurturing curiosity—has little to no place in our institutions. Not in the university or in our classrooms or in the hallowed halls of government or in our health care system. Instead of open-minded curiosity that can lead to innovative solutions to big problems like homelessness, we rely on snap judgements and decisions based on our close-minded, biased, preconceived notions.

Curiosity did not kill the cat. Curiosity is necessary for growth and survival and resilience in the face of adversity. Curiosity is necessary for empathy, for perspective-taking and imagination and creativity. Babies and small children are naturally curious, but as they grow up, formal education largely forces them to suppress curiosity. Students, and especially university students, are typically afraid to ask questions for the fear of appearing incompetent and stupid. We grade students based on their answers and not on the quality of their questions. University professors, including nurse educators, do not model a healthy valuing and practicing of curiosity. We are forced to specialize in a “focused area of study,” to become (or at least to pretend to be) experts with answers and not wise educators with yet more questions. 

Tenelle Porter, Phd, a behavioral psychology scholar at the University of California, Davis describes intellectual humility as the ability to acknowledge (to ourselves and to others) that what we know is quite limited. She points out that university professors are not known for having high levels of intellectual humility, yet fostering intellectual humility (closely linked with higher levels of curiosity) in students leads to greater learning and later career success. In addition, intellectual humility is associated with a greater openness to hearing and considering different viewpoints—something that is sorely lacking in our society and in our classrooms. 

“Who Owns What?” by Barbara Kruger, 2012, Tate Modern Museum, London

Sources: 

Francesca Gino (2018) The Business Case for Curiosity, Harvard Business Review

Tenelle Porter & Karina Schumann (2018) Intellectual humility and openness to the opposing view, Self and Identity, 17:2, 139-162, DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2017.1361861

Tenelle Porter (2018) The Benefits of Admitting When You Don’t Know, Behavioral Scientist