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Curiouser and curiouser

Knowledge Value Chain

If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?” – Lewis Caroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 2.

Familiar and enticing words. A quote many of us would recognise, if not remember from whence it came. It is, of course, words from the mouth of Alice on her Adventures in Wonderland as given to her by Lewis Caroll. Enticing – but strange! Poetic – but what might it mean? Is it nonsense – or mysterious – or metaphysical – or all three.  It certainly presents a mysterious conception of Alice’s world. Curious!

An original diagram from Lewis Caroll’s manuscript of the book.

Of course, Lewis Caroll was not really Lewis Caroll but rather Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician, author, poet, and priest. An unlikely children’s author and no stranger to mystery. Be it through mathematical symbolism or theology or poetry, Dodgson embraced new worldviews, metaphors and concepts which might illuminate the mystery of the world and reveal truth. Curiouser and curiouser!

Mystery is an increasingly alien concept in our post-Enlightenment, post-Modern world. Certainty is what’s valued. Clarity. Truth. We know what we know! But do we?

Mystery is not my concern here, though definitely a fascination. Instead, I’m interested by why we avoid it, why we eschew it, why we even deny its existence. On the one hand we claim that ‘science’ has removed, or at least reduced, mystery. More things are knowable, predictable, controllable. But that suggests a rather narrow understanding of science. Modern physics allows us to ‘know’ a lot, but it openly admits uncertainty and unknowability.

But forget science: the world of business and markets and politics is all about certainty and predictability, isn’t it. But ask any business leader or politician and they will wax lyrical about the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – the so-called VUCA environment – that dominates their daily horizon.

What concerns me – even worries me – is where this seeming contemporary lack of curiosity originates. Is it an innate feature of humanity? Unlikely given our history and achievements. Or is it innate yet suppressed? This is, perhaps more believable. We have only to watch our children and the wonder with which they view the world and the energy with which they taste, smell, explore, and test it. These instincts are profoundly and profusely present in childhood – and yet!

My question is how do we pivot from a childhood thirst to an adulthood satiation, from a childlike curiosity to an adult fixation? And what role does formal education play in this process?

As an admitted non-expert in, but interested observer of Anglo-Saxon K-12 education, it seems to me that the early stages of that process abound with curiosity and playfulness which are both encouraged and nurtured. And yet, by the time that Professors like me engage with young undergraduates, much of that curiosity has been dissipated by the structures and formalism of an imposed educational system. Playfulness is usurped by structure – curiosity displaced by assessment protocols.

Let me be clear lest there be any doubt. I don’t question the ability of our young people as they transit our educational system – they are wonderful and an endless source of inspiration and hope. Neither do I question the skill and commitment of their teachers – they, too, are wonderful and exemplary agents of nurture and insight.

And yet, I have young undergraduates regularly ask me whether a topic we are debating, or a line of discovery is “on the syllabus”. A conception of learning which is largely defined by syllabus, module structure and assessment regimes is simply too narrow and debilitating. It sucks the excitement from learning. It extinguishes curiosity.

Again, let me be clear. This is not the fault of the learners nor their teachers. Nonetheless it is a systemic manifestation of educational structures which do not serve us well. As such, it is society’s problem. And an urgent one at that.

Whether the root causes of this are constant policy meddling and endless secondary education reforms, or a lack of societal investment in the education of our young people, or indeed a national philosophical under-valuing of life-long learning per se, it is a societal problem and a national disgrace.

We inhabit a world of fascination and mystery, of complexity and volatility, of increasing uncertainty and ambiguity. Unless we invest with passion in our educational structures and (re)discover a national appetite for learning, we will never navigate the challenges ahead with confidence, nor plot a trajectory of hope, of innovation and discovery.

Curiosity is our companion and our compass – our impetus and our inspiration. It is to be prized and nurtured. We should never demur from being curiouser and curiouser.

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