Curiosity Is Political: We Must Nurture It if We Hope to Change the World

Coming home a few months ago from yet another frustrating day of teaching, I had a sudden epiphany that crystallized my swirling emotions: Curiosity is political. The absence, presence, cultivation and extirpation of curiosity are all political tools of almost unimaginable power. They are also social outcomes with ubiquitous political consequences.

It has been clear to the left for a long time that the contours of knowledge are politically drawn. In recent years, an interest in the politics of ignorance has begun to take shape, too; agnotology, as the philosophical study of ignorance is named, builds connections among politics, psychology and public memory to describe a social construction of ignorance that mirrors the social construction of knowledge. We should observe that this basic insight of agnotology is actually longstanding. Upton Sinclair remarked in 1934 that, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” making a direct case for a standpoint theory of ignorance.

Unfortunately, neither epistemology (the field of philosophy which studies how we know what we know) nor agnotology has engaged in any notable way with the idea of curiosity, which is, after all, the means by which the mind is engaged both to know and to ignore. Curiosity as a concept and a phenomenon appears to be almost entirely ignored by academics, a gaping hole that led to my “epiphany” of the entirely obvious statement that curiosity is political.

Curiosity is something of a catchall term in English; despite its almost universally positive modern connotations, it is not necessarily or automatically an unmitigated good. A refusal of curiosity can be a moral choice, as in a lack of curiosity about how to create a neutron bomb, or a respectful choice, as in maintenance of privacy. Curiosity can also be an indulgence, a mere diversion or distraction, or even a thirst for power. Think of the unslakeable sort of curiosity of 19th-century imperialists and Victorian memento-seekers, seeking knowledge as a form of control, or of the greedy, entrepreneurial curiosity of prospectors of every sort.

But without a desire to know about the world, we will never want to change it, nor know how to begin that project. Further, without a desire to know about other minds, other beings and other ways of being, we will never build community, solidarity or a new world. While support for incuriosity and ignorance can have important moral standing in contexts such as military research or imperialist prospecting, as teachers, activists or a concerned public, we must also advocate for the political and moral value of certain kinds of curiosity — curiosity which, in the words of Michel Foucault, “evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist.”

We live in a highly emotional global moment in which populations stew in fear, anger, anxiety, alienation and even shame among the “unsuccessful,” while curiosity is fundamentally built on self-possession, intellectual openness and a potential willingness to accept the unknown. Since we all know with just a moment’s reflection that defensive people, aggressive people or despairing people are only curious despite themselves, it is obvious that our moment’s zeitgeist is not conducive to curiosity.

We are in a classic catch-22: To build and maintain alternative politics, communities and social worlds, we need to pursue a deep curiosity about other people, other beings and other ways of living. But in order to make room for curiosity in our society, we need to make fundamental social changes. Meanwhile, curiosity is being actively squelched as a threat by those in power, actively suppressed as a form of self-defense by those under cultural attack, and is everywhere displaced by free-floating cultural anxiety.

The molding of curiosity begins at birth. Although there are precious few characteristics innate in humans, curiosity is one of them. Yet it was quickly obvious to me years ago as a new mother that as children grow up in our society, they progressively lose curiosity, yielding a remarkably incurious adult population. Although family dynamics and parental styles obviously shape and sometimes dampen curiosity, the transformation of youngsters’ wonder from sparkling and delighted into dull and sullen can largely be laid at the feet of school.

The flattening of free-ranging curiosity in schools has been the subject of complaint for centuries. But kindergarten and the lower elementary grades used to be relatively free-form in spirit and design, leaving learning by rote and strong concern for standards to the later years. Sociologists and psychologists used to peg somewhere around fourth grade as the time when kids lost curiosity, when resentment and ennui overtook a joyful love of novelty and exploration.

Even back in the mid-1980s, when nursery schools prioritized play, Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes’s 1985 study of preschoolers found that the average number of questions the children asked went from 26 per hour while at home to two per hour while in preschool. But now the “schools” for toddlers rehearse them in phonics. Not surprisingly, today’s children, subjected to planned curricula as early as nursery school and crushed by report cards with grades as early as kindergarten, are reported to be losing interest in school as early as first grade.

While standardized testing, overcrowding and underfunding undoubtedly have particularly toxic effects on the pursuit of inquiry in classrooms, the anaesthetizing of curiosity, in Paolo Freire’s phrase, occurs in any conventional educational institution. In her book, The Hungry Mind, Susan Engel devotes an entire chapter, entitled “Curiosity Goes to School,” to concretely describe how even the warmest, best-intentioned teachers who provide abundant hands-on learning situations kill curiosity in the quest to stay “on task” and cover required material.

Is steamrolling curiosity an actual purpose of school, or just a byproduct of other dynamics? Is curiosity a dangerous “casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential,” as Foucault described it, to be stamped out by the educational guardians of the status quo who eagerly enforce the hidden curriculum of obedience? Or does the deadening of intellectual quests merely result from schools’ pursuit of other agendas, with curiosity representing a failure to think in the capitalist terms of calculated opportunity costs, or presenting an obstacle to the smooth instruction in vocational skills or the imbuing of patriotism that could be taking place instead of wondering about the unsaleable? We can debate, but there’s no denying the essential school reality of crushed wondering and wonder.

Students quickly learn to return the favor of disinterest that teachers and schools bestow on their questions. Herbert Kohl’s classic essay “I Won’t Learn From You” is just one articulation of what every teacher knows — namely, that curiosity can be withheld as a mark of disfavor, rejection or antagonism, and frequently represents an attempt at defense — defense of the self from accusations or fears of failure, defense of a culture belittled or attacked by arrogant and hostile content. In this way, too, curiosity and its absence is political, as attempts to pump children full of ideas unpalatable by virtue of their politics, as well as by virtue of their hierarchical imposition, are met with the Teflon wall of student boredom. Indeed, one of the marks of a good teacher is a wily ability to sneak through the cracks of student disengagement and arouse curiosity by creating subtle emotional alliances, while holding the school at arm’s length.

What goes on in schools is part-and-parcel of the larger culture, and often is a mere reflection of it. If curiosity is doing so poorly in educational settings, what is happening to it in the wider world?

Firstly, we see the co-optation of curiosity for the purposes of power. Justin E. H. Smith writes that in our times, “curiosity is coopted by the state.” He continues:

And so begins the next chapter, the late modern chapter, of curiosity’s history. Murals go up on the sides of public buildings depicting atoms, bridge builders, men in lab coats. … Now the state grows jealous of the curiosity of individuals, seeking not so much to squelch it as simply to channel it for the state’s own interests. Every competence must have a license, and every interest and official association.

Next, as realms of culture and education become incorporated as part of “The Establishment,” a refusal to be curious about them is one form of a politics of resistance. When, for instance, Shakespeare or laboratory science is seized to become the cultural property of the elite, a lack of curiosity is engendered about realms of culture and knowledge anointed as “highbrow” and complicit in power. We observe here a confirmation that a happy or healthy curiosity requires some general sense of equality. A sense of inferiority leads to the withering of an ability to inquire, as well as a resentment of the delineated realm of the socially “superior.”

Despite a notable dearth of academic writing or investigation of curiosity, we can draw on the slightly richer study of ignorance for insight into incuriosity. Since curiosity is the personal and emotional expression of a desire to eliminate ignorance, and curiosity is the necessary means to arrive at fully embraced, meaningful knowledge, then agnotology, the philosophical study of ignorance, is closely allied to considerations of incuriosity. Agnotologists describe, among many categories of classification, three forms of ignorance: a native state of ignorance, a selective choice to be ignorant and an active construction of ignorance. The two latter states of ignorance will be, must be, arrived at via a withholding or suppression of curiosity.

Just as agnotologists talk of willful ignorance, perhaps it is time to start talking about a willful incuriosity. When we encounter willful incuriosity, we must consider whether it may embody classism, racism, sexism or other relations of power, as those filled with spite refuse to learn about those they despise. Withheld curiosity can be a mark of social disdain, as well as a means to create the convenient ignorance that allows an evasion of responsibility. Yet willful incuriosity may also embody a resistance to the knowledge that classism, racism or sexism has produced. Willful incuriosity should not be besieged as a matter of course. It may serve personally and politically useful functions.

But regardless of the roots of willful disinterest, and despite its occasional effectiveness in creating an insulation from personal or cultural assaults, a refusal to be curious has a disturbing double edge, creating dysfunction and toxicity at the same time as it provides certain kinds of protection. While we might applaud students’ strategy of mental and emotional absence from damaging classroom scenarios they are forced into, or adults’ refusal to attend to toxic material, the success of that strategy of disengagement bleeds into the rest of life. It is unlikely that children could spend their school hours in state of sulky disinterest or an adult could live workdays in a stolid emotional refusal, and yet emerge unscarred into a healthy and happy exploration and embrace of possibility after walking out of the doors of school or workplace. Habits of mind and emotion are sculpted through practice and repetition, and are not so easily donned and shed.

Our curiosity erodes not only from willful disinterest. Deep curiosity requires attention, presence and alertness. A meaningfully alive public sphere requires a curiosity about, and an active perception and acknowledgment of, other humans. But we live in a world of disappearing attention, a failure to truly attend — which, after all, requires patience and waiting. Attention and curiosity, as the opposites of apathy in some sense, in turn require hope. Curiosity implies a sense of personal efficacy and possibility, a belief that one’s curiosity might be fulfilled by one’s own actions, as well as a sense of the future. The sense of powerlessness and precarity that dominate our mood today directly displace and preempt curiosity, creating instead contemporary capitalism’s dominant affect: anxiety. To occupy our anxious minds, which cannot attend, we replace attention with aimless or idle distraction.

The class session I left despondent those few months ago before my epiphany was one in which students idly scrolled through their handheld devices as a few of us held a conversation about climate change and the ecological state of planet. Maybe they just wanted to hide from the terror of the topic, but they’d had the same reaction another day when we’d played with plants I had picked on my way in to school, using the urban weed nature guides I’d brought to identify them. Was this apathy the result of a violent extinguishing of the students’ curiosity by educational institutions? Or a sullen, resistant refusal to be curious in a college program they didn’t really want to be in? Or was this a total failure of hope? A reactionary resentment of the politics of the course?

We’ll all have to figure such scenarios out if we want to reach across the communicative chasms created by compulsion, resistance, arrogance, anger, despair and anxiety. What my epiphany told me is that the very first thing we need to do is to recognize that a morally good curiosity is not only an intellectual and academic concern. It is also an emotional and a political state, in desperate need of cultivation and tender loving care.