The cultivation of curiosity

Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity.

–A. Flexner

Abraham Flexner conceived and developed the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and was its founding director from 1930 to 1939. A unique place, that was able to adopt the major science thinkers from war-torn-Europe and let them stay in peace to express their creativity. You know, Einstein strolling with Gödel and Turing living in close contact with Von Neumann.

This guy Flexner wrote something in 1939 that resounds today profoundly in my mind: The pursuit of curiosity should drive both higher ed institutions (i.e. be an essential component of their mission) and guide the pedagogical and technological environment through which education in implemented.

In the quotes, bold is mine.

They have done their work without sort of use in that throughout the whole history of signs most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind has been made by men and women who were driven north by the desire to be useful but merely to the desire to satisfy their curiosity.

Curiosity, which may or may not even trade in something useful common is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity, and less they are deflected by consideration of immediacy of obligation, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare back to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which means the receipt to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times.

Abraham Flexner (1939): The usefulness of useless knowledge. Harper’s.
“Quote” by ullerup is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Here is an extract from Brain Pickings:

In The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (PDF), originally published in the October 1939 issue of Harper’s, American educator Abraham Flexner explores this dangerous tendency to forgo pure curiosity in favor of pragmatism — in science, in education, and in human thought at large — to deliver a poignant critique of the motives encouraged in young minds, contrasting those with the drivers that motivated some of history’s most landmark discoveries.

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings 2012

Curiosity was my driving engine (see previous post, The magic of dreaming and the power of imitation): through curiosity I set up to imitate those from whom I was impressed enough to begin pursuing something. I think my whole life has been driven by that, at least in the educational arena: a mix of curiosity and emulation.

About Antonio Vantaggiato

Professor, web2.0 enthusiast, and didactic chef.
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