Curiosity: Good, Bad, or Plot Point?

Athena T. Cat has no curiosity, or at least far less than any other cat I’ve encountered thus far. If you present her with something new, meaning you put it within a few inches of her, she may sniff it and possibly lick it. Otherwise she ignores new things, new people, and other intrusions into her world. I know people like that, and I always wonder how they can go through life content not to ask, poke, visit, read more about it, or see more than is presented. They are not bad people, just mysterious, at least to me.

Somewhere in human history a peak on the curiosity bell curve developed, between “disappeared into dark cave and was never seen again” or “ate one new plant too many” and “didn’t look around to see what was making that strange noise.” Optimal curiosity seems to center around people who are interested and want to learn more using all available tools, but who are experienced or cautious enough not to nibble/drink/poke absolutely everything until they are positive it can be done with a minimum of physical risk. They are the people who desperately want to know what’s over the next hill, and who watch for a while, then slooooowly sneak up the slope and peer out from between the bushes until they can confirm that nothing will attack them, or that it’s not a raging flood or some other danger.

Whether curiosity is good or bad seems to depend on the time and culture. You have Pandora’s box of Greek mythology , but you also have the thought experiments and exploration voyages of later Greeks. You have the tale of Bluebeard and his wives, or Cupid and Psyche, but are they warnings against inquiry or warnings against disobedience? Sometimes, the person who pulls up that plant and looks down the hole, or who climbs the beanstalk, is rewarded after they face the danger.

In the academic world, and I type this as someone who has a touch of the F.J.T. Syndrome, everyone knows or knows of That Professor who is forever researching. She never knows enough about [topic] to write that monograph that she is superbly qualified to write. Instead, like Fredrick Jackson Turner, she researches and researches, occasionally gives papers, but never stops researching in order to write. She disappears down rabbit holes and can tell you amazing amounts of ancillary information tangentially related to [topic] but refuses to start the book. Why? Because she “doesn’t know enough yet.”

At the other extreme, in Chretien de Troyes’s Arthurian stories, Perceval fails to be curious enough. He see’s the Fisher King’s (or Wounded King’s*) injuries, and the Lance and Grail, but fails to ask about his host’s wounds and what he, Perceval, might be able to do to assist the king. In a later version (forty years or so) Wolfram von Eschenbach has Parzival acknowledge his error and go on a quest to heal the king. Granted, de Troyes died before he could finish his version, so we’ll never know how it was supposed to end. Perceval’s lack of curiosity, or in some versions his lack of manners enough to ask and thus assuage his curiosity, is still a grave fault.

One of the major complaints I have about how most public schools teach is that curiosity is discouraged. Students are not supposed to ask too many questions, or to be interested in doing more research, or challenging knowledge. Now granted, there is a line between curiosity and disrupting the classroom with fascinating-to-you questions when a certain amount of ground has to be covered. I’ve crossed that once or twice, and I’ve had to deflect one or two of my own students who really wanted to know more in detail we just didn’t have time for (alas.) But I’m always dismayed by how many students take everything as the Voice of Authority and don’t question, or apply a little reason and logic. Because they’ve been taught not to question, unless it is “Questioning Authority” with Authority being whoever they disagree with at the moment.

I’d say we need more curiosity. “Why?” may be annoying when heard for the tenth time in three minutes, but it also opens doors and new worlds, inventions and discoveries that have driven humans around the world and closer to the stars.


*At least one environmental historian has speculated that the Mabinogion version of this story looks back to a folk memory of the plagues and dearth following the volcanic eruption that caused global cooling and storms in the mid-AD-500s CE, or possibly an earlier but similar event. The tradition of the king’s health being tied to that of the land and vice versa is a very old idea indeed.


3 thoughts on “Curiosity: Good, Bad, or Plot Point?

  1. It is also a matter of subject. Chemistry, Physics, even Biology… yeah “How’s that work/happen?” Sports? *yawn* “Two teams play, one wins – maybe. Read the score tomorrow and done.” But’s just me. I understand some folks find the contests fascinating somehow.

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