Curiosity is a strange phenomenon. It is inscribed in all living organisms, pushing them to explore their habitat and learn how to survive in it. Children continue to amaze and delight us with their inborn curiosity. They also let us witness the later waning of their curiosity or its diversion into what adults call pure distraction. Looking back in history, we can see the enormous variations across time and space—in the ways in which curiosity expresses itself, the changes in the primary objects of its attention, and especially how different kinds of curiosity were either cultivated or repressed in varying contexts. In my book Insatiable Curiosity, I show how society—any society or collectivity—cannot tolerate unchecked curiosity. Curiosity is loaded with too much of a subversive potential to let it flourish without societal intervention or censure. If left completely free, it becomes utterly transgressive. Not only does it not respect established boundaries by moving into directions for which it has not received directions, it explores wildly and often erratically whatever it finds without knowing what it will find. It does not follow any preset script, nor does it have a built-in moral compass. For these reasons, society seeks to tame curiosity; it strives to channel it into approved directions and to induce it to explore preset goals. By cultivating certain forms of curiosity and not others, society largely succeeds in instrumentalizing curiosity and fitting it into the dominant economic, cultural, and political context.
Yet precisely at the moment when curiosity appears domesticated, tamed, and instrumentalized, it may flip and display its subversive force. It resists being taken hostage or being moved in one direction only. It succeeds in finding escape routes and does so either playfully or in a more transgressive mood. It becomes unpredictable again, percolating through structures that seem firmly established and finding novel and subversive forms of expression. This is where the present volume, Curiosity Studies, enters. At a time when corporate capitalism, so the argument presented here goes, is channeling the inherent curiosity of the young generation exclusively and obsessively toward its own anticipated goals, we are challenged to revisit curiosity. If the only goal that matters in education is to equip students with the aspiration “to get a job,” the scope is dangerously narrowed, leading some who witness the negative downsides to accuse the system of “being broken.”
When reading the contributions brought together in this volume, I was most struck by the urgent, passionate, and, at least to me, novel emphasis on (re)introducing the study of curiosity into the classroom and academia in the United States. Apparently, the authors are hitting a raw nerve with their insistence on the subversive and insubordinate potential of curiosity in teaching and education. By making this the focus of the book, Curiosity Studies breaks new ground. It challenges the academic and educational establishment to grant open spaces for a double intervention: to explore the many-layered facets of curiosity from a genuine multi- and interdisciplinary perspective and to conduct teaching and research experiments in the classroom that let students practice their own curiosity while guiding them to reflexively analyze where it leads and what might follow.
The book excels in bringing out the persisting ambivalence of curiosity, the “frivolous” and “serious” side of its double nature. It is this inherent ambivalence that needs to be linked back to education and to the teaching of curiosity, making students fully aware of it. They need to relearn to be curious but also be taught how easily they can be seduced to engage in “mere” curiosity. They need to learn to recognize and accept the ambivalence of curiosity. In the end, they should learn how to cope with it. This includes teaching the younger generation to identify, acknowledge, and judge the two sides of curiosity as they manifest themselves in the various real-life contexts explored in this volume. They have to learn to decide what matters to them individually and what is good for a better society. In other words, the book is unique in offering guidance on how to develop curiosity-informed judgments of curiosity in contexts that span a broad swath of contemporary society and the anxieties it produces. Students should be enabled to cope with the ambivalence of curiosity by learning how to become aware and self-reflexive.
Reading the book was a joyful experience for me, offering many gems of novel and surprising insights. It convinced me that the editors have succeeded in bringing together the material for making a strong case for curiosity studies—not only as a field of scholarship but as a way of studying curiosity in the classroom and outside. As such, the book offers the opportunity to produce resonance with a readership “out there” that is eager to fill the current void or that actively and strategically seeks to resist what I have called the taming of curiosity and its one-dimensional instrumentalization in contemporary society. If academia and schools, as the last bastions of providing space for seemingly idle curiosity, are now under relentless assault from corporate capitalism that channels curiosity in one and one direction only, namely profit and success as defined by markets, then the call for subversive resistance has a chance to be heard.