The Hard Way Will Be Easier Later
By Rising McDowell
CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It
Ian Leslie, Basic Books Publishing, $16.99
It’s become all too easy to forgo learning something because you can just look it up later. But real learning creates an associative network of information into which new facts can fall into place. When they fit into a bigger picture in our long-term memory, facts can become permanently integrated instead of being lost to irrelevance. This is why Leslie contends that “anyone who stops learning facts for himself because he can google them later is literally making himself stupid.”
The role of the internet in our cognition comes up again and again in Curious, and while he issues warnings about the web, Leslie does not come off as a mere techno-skeptic. When he calls the Internet “a precision-tooled, hyperlubricated machine for the delivery of answers,” I have to agree. The web never allows our questions to remain unanswered. And precisely because human curiosity depends on the awareness of ‘missing pieces’ and the desire to close information gaps, Leslie asserts that the ease with which we can google the answers to every question is actually stifling our curiosity.
Leslie powerfully counters the argument by “progressive educationalists”, like advocates of the Montessori and Waldorf methods, that schools should focus on fostering children’s curiosity instead of teaching facts. But the facts we learn in school aren’t just random bits of information – they create the associate network we need to answer bigger questions without having to first figure out their fundamental principals. The greater our store of existing ideas and reference points, the more we are able to create rich combinations and interdisciplinary links that can become the starting points for innovation.
'Anyone who stops learning facts for himself because he can google them later is literally making himself stupid.'
Leslie’s investigation of curiosity is thoughtfully well-rounded, first analyzing curiosity’s workings in infancy before describing its rewards in old-age. In his exploration of curiosity in early childhood, Leslie cites developmental psychologist Jean Piaget who proposed that curiosity is stoked when a discrepancy is perceived. Because children are “operating on a few very simple theories about how the world works,” they are constantly faced with situations that do not fit into their theories and are thus always seeking explanations.
This is where we get to the important question of why some kids remain curious through their childhoods while others lose the drive to keep asking questions. Leslie poses that home environment and education account almost entirely for how and why curiosity strengthens or atrophies over time. Leslie refers to multiple studies suggesting that children whose parents return their questions with more questions, probing them to think critically and make associative connections, are much more likely to continue asking questions.
A crucial but less obvious part of this dynamic is the learning of question-asking itself. Leslie notes that question-asking is largely learned over time through osmosis and is easily taken for granted by those raised in middle and upper class households. But knowing how to ask questions is important, and being able to confidently formulate one is a necessary skill in many social and professional settings. Constant competition means that modern workplaces will always “place a premium” on those who can ask good questions.
Citing Clayton Christensen’s The innovator’s Dilemma, Leslie reminds us that often times the biggest companies can fail because “they stop asking how they can do things better.” Riding on their successes, they stop asking questions and lose the hunger to know more. Suddenly they wake up one day to find that their products, brand or image are being overtaken by smaller competitors who are “driven by the need to ask fresh questions.”
In his closing chapter, ‘How to Stay Curious’, Leslie lists 7 ways to foster your curiosity. While I was disappointed to find lengthy anecdotes here instead of practical suggestions, the abundance of insights presented throughout the book doesn’t leave me short of ideas. I know now that visiting the library instead of doing a google search will more likely result in quality learning. Delaying gratification and allowing my questions to ripen will give me time to contemplate possibilities for myself. Above all, I feel a stronger desire to learn more things, a deeper purpose beneath it.
Curious shows us that learning not only embellishes life with detail, color and texture, but the acquisition of a seemingly “unnecessary breadth and depth” of knowledge isn’t so unnecessary after all; it creates the network by which we can more permanently integrate new information into our long-term memory, adapt to a wider variety of environments and situations, and make connections that lead to deeper insight. In the age of digital primacy, perhaps the most important thing we can do to protect our curiosity is to use the internet not as an end in itself but as a means to widening our knowledge base so we can better understand the things we haven’t yet figured out.