Pam Grossman and John L. Jackson Jr.
Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.
—Zora Neale Hurston
Curiosity should be the heart of any educational institution. Indeed, it can be argued that curiosity drives the generation of new knowledge. An urge to wonder, to ponder the hows and whys of existence, has fueled the creation of questions and conceptual formations from physics to philosophy. Even still, universities sometimes seem more comfortable using the language of innovation rather than invoking what might be deemed the more frivolous mien of curiosity. Academicians often cite innovation as a kind of mantra and institutional goal more often than they overtly reference curiosity as a foundational principle for any life of the mind. Maybe that’s because innovation seems more substantive and precise, not to mention more hardwired to assumptions about technological transformation and interdisciplinary engagement—as opposed to supporting the potentially rambling machinations of an unchecked commitment to just being intellectually curious. Curiosity begs questions. It demands more specificity. Curiosity about what? Why? To what ends?
Innovation has a telos, a clear objective, goals that predetermine its endgame in ways that are socially conspicuous. Curiosity might be dismissed as more of an aimless journey, a kind of lurching to and fro—without any baked-in presuppositions about transforming the world. It could just mean being nosy or meddlesome. There’s a proverbial saying about curiosity finishing off felines for good reason. (With eight more lives to spare, a cat might be able to afford more inquisitive lollygagging and snooping around than humans can safely endure.)
Curiosity is often a private affair, driven by a desire to delve deeper, without a premeditated endpoint. In contrast, most deployments of the term innovation already presume a ready on-ramp to the market, a mechanism whereby price tags are always already hanging off innovators’ prescient creations. From certain angles, “innovation” can look like a kind of Trojan Horse for ultimately commercial concerns, not all the time but in ways that take pride of place when laying out institutional or individual priorities. Innovation is perceived as lucrative, dollar signs dancing like sugar plums in everyone’s heads. And not simply or selfishly for those behind said innovations. Material gains redound to a larger swath of beneficiaries—maybe even to humanity itself. That explains why there can be an ethical valence to preferring innovation over curiosity. The former is decidedly social; its “good” is ultimately public. The latter seems personal, egoistic, or even antisocial in its privileging of an interiorized purpose and ambition that may not have any obvious social applicability. Whereas innovation comes off as univocally constructive and justifiable, not all forms of curiosity are built that same way. Most get dismissed as distractions while a rare and few others, carefully cultivated, are the would-be elixirs without which anything worthy of the term innovation could never come to be.
In thinking with the critical group of scholars assembled in this volume to help us consider more deeply and carefully what curiosity entails, the specter of innovation is a powerful foil for these collective endeavors. Curiosity doesn’t necessarily lead to innovation. Innovation is assumed to play the role of domesticating curiosity, placing its indifferent ethos in service to the public good. Indeed, the very phrase Curiosity Studies might feel implausible, or at least counterintuitive; curiosity is too undisciplined and free-flowing for the kind of systematic and disciplinary approach that its adjectival placement before the idea of organized academic scholarship seems to imply. Can curiosity be disciplined by the academy and become amenable to scholarly inquiry?
Curiosity is one of those words that is all the more intriguing because we take it for granted, because we assume we know what it means. Arjun Shankar and Perry Zurn, former postdocs at the University of Pennsylvania (thanks to generous support from the Center for Curiosity in New York City), have asked a stellar group of thinkers from a variety of disciplines/fields to assist us in our aim to get a lot more curious about the idea of curiosity itself. What does it open up, and what does its evocation occlude? What differentiates curiosity from imagination or creativity? Can curiosity be cultivated or foreclosed? If nothing else, this anthology helps to demonstrate that curiosity is not just a potentially powerful first step in learning and producing new things, a lapdog to innovation’s profitable mandates, but also a fascinating notion to examine just for the sake of doing so—even if the only way this undertaking might come to matter (in the academy and beyond) is if it proves to be a groundbreaking way of reimagining what we think curiosity to be in the first place.
We’re confident that this collection of essays will inspire you to reconsider curiosity as a fundamental and all-too-often neglected element of what it means to be a human being.