A little while ago I went to the UConn Co-op on a rainy Thursday evening to hear Walt Woodward talk about his new book, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676. Walt is the Connecticut State Historian as well as a history professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and he gave a fascinating talk. But the most interesting moment in the presentation came during the question and answer session. One of the audience members asked Walt what had made him so interested in Winthrop, Jr. and his Alchemical research. In response, Walt told of driving up towards Sturbridge Village and getting lost. Wandering, he encountered a historical marker referring to an old lead mine dating back to the seventeenth century. Walt wondered why people struggling to survive in a new colony would have come that far inland to set up a mine. From that question came many years of probing into the life of Winthrop, who had proposed the mine, and the culture of his time. Walt’s story of having his curiosity stimulated by a chance encounter, and having that curiosity take over his life for years reminded me what universities are for. Universities, especially public universities, are society’s investment in curiosity.
Maybe putting it that way seems frivolous. UConn spends something like a billion dollars a year on its operations, and spending a billion dollars on curiosity might seem steep. But curiosity is not only what prompted Walt to look into the life of John Winthrop, Jr.; it’s what prompted Alexander Fleming to take another look at his petri dish, and Albert Einstein to ask what it would be like to ride a street car travelling at the speed of light. And while I’m not sure that I would presume to assign curiosity as a motive for artists, it is certainly part of the driving force in criticism – how does Melville manage to create that growing sense of dread as the Pequod closes in on Moby Dick?
Of course, my mind working the way it does, I didn’t think about Moby Dick after hearing Walt’s talk. Instead, I thought about Larry Niven‘s classic science fiction stories and novels. Niven writes about archetypal aliens, like the fierce relentless warriors called the Kzinti or the intensely maternal and protective Pak. His most fascinating aliens, the Puppeteers, are smart but afraid of everything. In Niven’s stories, when the Puppeteers confront a mystery or a threat they turn to the civilization that, in Niven’s universe, epitomizes curiosity beyond the bounds of prudence – namely, homo sapiens. Not as smart as the puppeteers, not as brave and strong as the Kzinti, in Niven’s universe humans make up for their limitations in other areas by learning everything they possibly can about whatever crosses their path. To Niven, curiosity is humanity’s evolutionary advantage.
While I concede that quoting science fiction authors may not be the best authority, I agree with Niven that curiosity is an essential part of humanity.
But it is also fragile. After all, it’s impossible to predict when curiosity will lead to real insight and when it will prove a waste of time. Just think about how susceptible curiosity is to ridicule. “Why are you interested in that? It sounds stupid to me.” And how vulnerable curiosity is to fear – “Don’t ask that question! What if you find out that our deeply held beliefs are wrong!” And, unfortunately, curiosity is expensive. Time spent wondering, asking questions, tinkering around, reading, or just thinking does, every great once in a while, lead to world-changing discovery, but a lot of time it doesn’t. We need to tolerate the many failed efforts on the grounds that the rare success makes it worthwhile. We need universities, and elementary and secondary schools, and community colleges, and every other institution of learning across the country to cultivate curiosity. We know from Fleming, and Einstein, and yes, Walt Woodward too, that the payoffs may be rare, but they will eventually come, and we’ll all be better off as a result.
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