Curiosity, part I

by Jesse Kavadlo

We all know that curiosity killed the cat. But the real question is, How can we keep curiosity alive?

In order to explore many questions about curiosity, the Center for Teaching and Learning convened a panel of curious professors from across disciplines.

Steve Coxon, Education, pondered, “What is curiosity, and how does it develop?,” focusing on the ways in which schooling and culture can inadvertently diminish children’s curiosity and potential ways that the empirical study of curiosity can help teachers to foster it.

Photographer Scott Angus discussed ways in which curiosity can lead to outward discovery—including his journey to the Great Wall of China—while poet Dana Levin examined how her curiosity led to inner connections, discussing the unlikely path from a beautiful yet mysterious image on Facebook to the imaginary framework she devised to compose a poem about it.

Psychologist Brian Bergstrom analyzed what curiosity is capable of, using the metaphor of water’s freezing point as the moment where everything suddenly changes and crystalizes, while designer Cherie Fister asked how people experience curiosity, focusing on the combination of function and wonder that goes into making flowerpots from unlikely receptacles. Science Education professor Nadine Ball talked about the unlikely intellectual paths her curiosity has taken her, including questions about tree excretions. (Maybe you had to be there.)

What, wondered artist John Baltrushunas, using a series of images, is the relationship of creativity to curiosity, and how can we foster both? Yet what are potential unintended consequences of curiosity? Oboist Laura Ross played a recording (included in the video) that displays her present-day virtuosity, even as she recounted the way in which a director’s discouragement—he told her that she “didn’t have what it takes” to make it in music—only pushed her harder. And Johannes Wich-Schwarz, who studies literature and theology, analyzed the etymology of the German word “Neugier,” which translates as curiosity but literally means greed for the new, suggesting a philosophical flipside and conclusion to Steve Coxon’s American empirical studies.

Maybe curiosity doesn’t just lead to dead cats. After all, we shouldn’t ignore the seldom-stated second half of the proverb: Curiosity killed the cat, of course.

But satisfaction brought it back.

Still curious? The next part of the series takes place February 11, 2016, at the St Louis Science Center, where we will talk about the ways in which space travel may allow us to understand life on Earth. We’ll see you then!