There is a lack of intellectual curiosity in our society

I am a very curious person.

 

Whenever there is something new to me, I would love to know the details behind it. Often I am not satisfied about a situation until I have at least some knowledge about an area. I feel this great missing thing in me, unless I learn more about the matter, as if I were incomplete without the full knowledge. If I cannot learn more immediately, I will make a mental note to look at the area at a later time. One person once described me as a “Walking Library”. I find that strange, but quite a few people have described me that way.

 

It is to my great amazement that not everyone has this curiosity. One of the things that I am very curious about is a lack of human curiosity amongst such a large part of the people that I meet. I am at a complete loss as to why. A typical conversation with someone who is not curious might be one where I introduce an interesting fact, such as how another nation has a different way of approaching a problem. That person will just say something like “oh”, indicating that they never knew, and then move on. What strikes me as odd is that they never ask for more details about the subject. This is true even when the subject matter has the potential to affect them either directly or indirectly in the future.

 

Once, when I encountered such behavior, I asked, “don’t you want to learn more”? In the context of that case, he owned the same product that I had been describing which had a known flaw. I had spent considerable time investigating it and learning about how the defect happened. It was a fair amount of money too, we were talking (hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars). That flawed product (a defective power supply) could have damaged his equipment. The person in question did not seem to care about how power supplies in computers worked, how they are manufactured, and why the power supply was flawed. It was a matter of “it just works, move on”. The way he was using that power supply meant that his entire computer was at risk. There was a bit of surprise and then a blank look on the person’s face. Then the person shrugged and tried to change the subject. He seemed surprised that I had wondered why he didn’t care.

 

Others will even more strangely, try to deliberately not learn or remain willfully ignorant about a subject matter. This is especially true if they hold a very strong opinion about something and you present evidence that may disprove that cherished belief.  Even when there is a situation where they can profit from learning and being curious, such people will choose ignorance.An example would be a preferred brand of product not being the best or having a design defect. They don’t want to know. They prefer ignorance. I think this is caused by a fear of the implications, namely the implications of what the truth means for their cherished beliefs. Rather than choosing to accept the truth, they choose to dig deeper into their current ideology.

 

I’m sure you have seen something like this in your life. In fact, I suspect that there may be a certain selection bias amongst the type of people likely to read this post in that you are more intellectually oriented. A less intellectually oriented person has probably rolled their eyes and closed this tab, seeing the word count and said “TLDR” in their heads a long time ago. That is assuming of course, they would even stumble upon a post like this, which is not probable.

 

Mark M. Goldblatt, a writer and a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York, argues that intellectual curiosity is the very good predictor of success and those who are not curious are not college material. I think that he has an important point. In our effort to expand university and post-secondary education, the quality of students that goes may have declined. Sure, the top 10% will always be great, but when a very high percentage of the population goes into post-secondary education, unless the average quality of student graduating secondary school makes a huge leap, the quality of student will inevitably diminish. The problem I see is that going to university these days is often not a choice. With the decline of manufacturing in the Western world (a policy I strongly disagree with), there are limited opportunities for high paying jobs outside of university. Certainly, some areas such as the trades may have good opportunities and genuine shortages, but the gap between high school is rapidly rising. The study I linked was for the US, but I would not be surprised if the results were very close in Canada.

 

Others see the potential for bigger harm. Les Potter, a Communications Lecturer at Towson University notes that a lack of curiosity could be harmful for employment. That should be a huge counterargument to those who argue that the only purpose of university is to get a higher paying job. Thinking skills are becoming more critical. There does seem to be a general resistance these days to what might be called a “general education”. The problem with not having such an education is that a person becomes hyper-specialized. They are super vulnerable to changes in the world because they lack the ability to think, to react to the unexpected, and to deal with different ideas. The other reason why I think that thinking skills is key is because in some areas, it will be much harder to computerize and automate. That could be the key in the future if computers do indeed take over many of the jobs we currently do.

 

Both have important points. I would argue that those who are not curious are not leadership material. Leadership today requires the ability to think and to adapt to changing situations. Sadly our culture seems to value assertiveness, extroversion, and confidence over what is actually correct based on facts, and perhaps quality to lead. In business, a case could be made that Level Five Leadership  (paywall) as defined by Jim Collins is actively lacking. That may be as Jim notes because current corporate culture actively filters them out in favour of the cult of character and super leaders.

 

I suppose you could argue that this is a good reason why a critical thinking-centric education system is very important. I believe that everyone should be taught the scientific method from the very start. Carl Sagan once wrote a book about the dangers of the lack of curiosity and he feared for the consequences of what might happen. We could as a society someday regress. Not just stop progressing and stagnate, but actually regress. Anyways, that book is The Demon Haunted World and if you have the time, I would urge you to read it.

 

In my spare time, I have often wondered, is a lack of curiosity a disease or some other malady? If so, is there possibly a cure? I wonder because it could be one of the most dangerous threats to humanity, combined with our sense of complacency. Perhaps we will get more curious as we get more intelligent? I certainly hope so. I fear that the long-term survival of our species may depend on it.

 

On a separate note, I have an entire series planned on lack of intellectual curiosity it’s consequences, and my hopes for the future. Until next time. -Chris

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