The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal
May 14, 2021
Curiosity Is Important, But Colleges Are Suppressing It
-by Francis H. Buckley
No one needs curiosity more than the young, but our educational system is doing its best to suppress it. The kids are being bored out of their minds.
Of course, that’s nothing new in our K-12 schools. As older Americans recall the time they spent in classrooms, they’ll also remember how they were bored, and curious about what was happening outside. But then those classes forced us to open our minds to novel subjects, to things we never would have learned but for school, to history, poetry, and the dissection of frogs.
In some of these classes—the best ones—our curiosity would kick in and we’d embark on a lifelong voyage of discovery.
That’s what happened in college too. Most people—me for one—arrived there with only the haziest of ideas of what they wanted to study. That’s why mandatory first-year courses make sense. You might not know that you had an interest in learning chemistry, foreign languages, or philosophy until you’re required to burrow down into those subjects. But once introduced to them, your curiosity and delight in the subject takes over.
That’s much less likely to happen today, as our K-12 schools and colleges are increasingly teaching students to become social justice warriors rather than broadening their intellectual horizons. That’s wrong in itself. A college education isn’t meant to be political indoctrination. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” and wasted it is when it’s reduced to brainwashing.
But worse still is what it does to young people at a time when they’re supposed to be exposed to an array of subjects and the new learning that comes with them. The indoctrination—the numerous courses that are about conveying political correctness rather than teaching bodies of knowledge—imposes the opportunity cost of things pushed aside.
There’s a simple reason what curiosity matters more for the young. When we’re young and it’s all before us, choices matter greatly. When we die, it’s all behind us. In between, choices are at first important and then become increasingly inconsequential. The big decisions come right at the start. That’s because life is a wasting asset. It’s like a mine full of precious gems, immensely valuable before mining begins but less and less so as the gems are extracted. When the last gem is dug up the mine is worthless.
We take bigger risks when we’re young, and we’re hard-wired to do so. A growing body of empirical evidence finds that our preferences about risk aren’t stable, and that we become more risk-averse as we grow older. That’s true of individuals and it’s also true of societies as they age. In younger societies, you’ll see higher levels of risk-taking and self-employment. In aging ones, you’ll see more conservative savings and investment behavior. We don’t see old bungee-jumpers.
Our folk tales tell children to have pluck and follow where their curiosity leads. They became folk tales because they were repeated, and they were repeated because they offered good advice. They told kids it was OK to trade the cow for the magic beanstalk. Go off and seek your fortune, they told Jack. Be a giant-killer. Children must take risks when they start out on life, and the folk tales offer them the kind of encouragement they need.
The brainwashing dampens the sense of curiosity for young people when they need it most. What’s worse is the cancel culture that makes it dangerous for the curious to stray from the prescribed path of wokeness. Where students know that they can be singled out by a “bias incident response team” just for a statement or question that could be deemed offensive by someone on campus, the natural reaction is to stifle your curiosity.
For example, at Cypress College recently, a professor rebuked a student for daring to say that police were heroes rather than villains. When faculty treat students that way, both speech and curiosity are squelched. (To its credit, the school suspended the professor, but students absorb the message that it’s wisest to put their minds in neutral and keep quiet.)
Instead of encouraging curiosity, colleges do more to encourage a conformist mindset and vindictiveness toward those who make themselves into targets. If that’s going to mean that college admission letters get rescinded, so much the better, says one student. You might be ruining their lives, but “when you prevent them from advancing, you’re helping to stop the spread of racist lawyers or doctors or people who make it harder for the black community.”
In one example, a 15-year-old cheerleader sent a friend a three-second Snapchat video after she received her learner’s permit. “I can drive, [racial slur],” she sang. That’s a word she had heard everywhere in rap music. Her Snapchat video would have quickly disappeared, except that another student saved it to use it when the time was right.
We need to create, to struggle and not to yield, to be curious about the world and what we owe other people.
That time came three years later, after the girl had been accepted to the University of Tennessee with its nationally recognized cheer team. It was her dream college, but when her fellow student shared it and it spread on social media, the college asked her to withdraw.
She’s now taking online classes at a local community college. As for the person who ratted her out, he’s proud of what he did. He taught someone a lesson. The New York Times sympathized. The deeper story was about “a complex portrait of behavior that for generations had gone unchecked in schools in one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, where Black students said they had long been subjected to ridicule.”
With that in mind, ask yourself whether you’d show much curiosity were you in high school today. Imagine interrupting your teacher in the middle of a critical race rant, and asking if the class could get back to talking about Jane Austen. It wouldn’t happen.
There’s a popular video, profiled by The Washington Post, that shows how teachers push critical race theory. A student is shown a picture of two women, one black, one white. What’s that about, asks the teacher. It’s just two people chilling, says the student. That’s it, asks the teacher? The student repeats what he said and the teacher becomes more frustrated. So you want me to talk about race, asks the student? Isn’t that just more racism? The teacher answers, “You can’t look at the people and not acknowledge that there are racial differences.”
There’s a single way of looking at things today, and we’re teaching America’s young that it’s dangerous to go anywhere else. That’s a crime against humanity, because we live in a world of wonders that offers opportunities for enjoyment and delight, and all we have to do is reach out and grab them.
We need to create, to struggle and not to yield, to be curious about the world and what we owe other people. Every leap of knowledge was created by a person who was curious. If we won’t see much of this from today’s students, you can thank our educational system.
Francis H. Buckley teaches at Scalia Law School. His most recent book is Curiosity—And its Twelve Rules for Life (Encounter, 2021).