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Curious thoughts about curiosity

Bill Meredith

 "I think, at a childís birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to
endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity."
                                       Eleanor Roosevelt

"If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in." Ö Rachel Carson

According to MNSC (Meredithís New Seasonal Calendar), fall ended on Nov. 6 this year. That was the Day the Leaves Came Down, bringing us into that un-named and mildly dreary season between fall and winter. The days are about the same length now as they are in early spring, which confused our mockingbird; his hormones got stirred up, and he started attacking the rear-view mirror of our car like he did last spring, defending his territory by trying to chase his own reflection away. He has been eating pokeberries, and has left purple stains all over the car, much to my wifeís displeasure even though that is her favorite color.

I was late getting the bird feeder out, but it didnít seem to matter. There had been no juncos or goldfinches in the yard yet this fall, but within the hour they were flocking around the feeder as if they knew it was scheduled to be out that day. They didnít know, of course; they found it because their survival depends on being curious and investigating any new things that appear in the area where they live. Most animals are curious to some degree, but they vary according to the requirements of their lifestyles, and since curiosity is an essential part of our own makeup, we find them more or less interesting. For example, rabbits are surrounded by edible vegetation, so they donít have to look for food; their survival depends more on knowing where to hide. So while they may be cute and cuddly, they arenít notably curious (Peter Rabbit to the contrary); hence they are less interesting than squirrels, which are the embodiment of curiosity. Squirrels must search for what they eat, so in order to survive they are always poking their noses into odd places. Their curiosity may make them pests, but it also makes them interesting in an almost human-like way.

While some amount of curiosity is probably present in all higher animals, it is most highly developed in humans; in fact, I believe it is one of the fundamental qualities that make us human. Unfortunately, we are not all born with equal amounts of it. Eleanor Roosevelt was right; it is a gift greatly to be desired. Children who have it are like squirrels, always getting into things and being pests. In former times, when children were to be seen and not heard, it sometimes seemed that one of the chief objectives of the educational system was to stifle curiosity. But while some amount of order and discipline is necessary in a classroom, maintaining these conditions at the expense of curiosity is a poor trade-off. Once closed, minds are hard to re-open. Politicians like to preach about the need to improve science teaching, but what we really need is to foster curiosity in our classrooms. Rachel Carson knew this; she was writing before political correctness made it improper to refer to all children as "he," but she knew what was important. If more teachers followed her advice, it would go a long way toward solving the problems our educational system faces.

At the college level, I found curiosity to be one of the most-reliable means of predicting success in my students. Some got good grades by memorizing facts but never wondered why things happen, while others would get so fascinated pursuing a new idea that they neglected to bother with learning the background information. The latter group could be frustrating at timesÖ they were probably the ones that were always getting in trouble in elementary schoolÖ but they were ultimately the most rewarding to teach. It took patience, but when I could convince them to develop some self-discipline, they were the ones who went on to the most-successful careers. Contact with them was the thing I missed most when I retired.

Recently I was able to revisit such a group. A friend who is teaching a course in Environmental Writing at Mount St. Maryís asked me to come and talk to her class about how topics are chosen and why such writing is important. These are matters I had taken for granted, since I started writing late in life, but they are basic questions for students who have not yet accumulated a variety of experiences to draw from. So I sent them an article I had written a year ago about the forest on the Mount campus, and suggested that we walk up the mountain to see it.

It was a small class of eight students; they were not majoring in science, but they had curiosity in abundance, and made up for what they didnít know by asking questions. The path up the mountain is a lot steeper than it used to be when I took my own classes up there, but pausing to rest gave us time to talk about writing. It was easy to explain how I choose topics: simply being curious about the things I see and read makes it inevitable that I will encounter at least one thing worth writing about during the monthís time between deadlines. Other questions came from all directions. The route we took was so steep because it followed a geologic fault that lifted the mountain up 300 million years ago. The path itself was a logging trail, formed by hauling firewood down to the college in the 19th century, and severely eroded over the years. We saw biodiversity in the variety of trees, shrubs and mosses, and soil being formed by leaf litter. We found a few American Chestnut saplings, still struggling to survive the blight that arrived in the 1920s. We walked through what looked like a war zone, where trees had been killed by gypsy moths and the forest was beginning to grow back by succession. We speculated about the impact that human activities will have on it in the future, and I found I did not have to explain why environmental writing was important. The class period was over too quickly.

Those students were among the lucky ones; they made it through the educational system with their curiosity intact. I have no idea whether any of them will become writers, or what other careers they may enter, but I would bet that they will succeed. And it is a high-stakes bet; the future of this country depends on producing enough minds that have the curiosity to ask the right questions and solve the problems before us.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith