Second Thoughts on Curiosity

Updated: Jul 16

This article was originally published in the CACE Blog on December 5, 2019.

One thing I am curious about is the heart. I wonder why your heart goes faster when you run. I am so curious about the heart that beats. Bryannah, 2nd grade
I’m curious about how a brain thinks. What does a cerebral cortex do? I want to learn more about people’s brains so I can read people’s minds.  Devon, 2nd grade

I’ve always been a big fan of curiosity, encouraging its cultivation by my students when I taught in public school. But I wonder, is there something beyond curiosity we are hoping to inspire in our Christian school students?

In a previous blog I referred to Howard Gardner’s concept of a crystallizing moment: “when the child connects to something that engages curiosity and stimulates further exploration.” I’ve used that quotation for years in workshops and presentations. I still like it. We should spend a lot of time planning that moment when we design projects or introduce a topic. Curiosity is obviously a necessary ingredient of student engagement, but is there anything Christian about it?

Curiosity has not received favorable press over the centuries. Eve’s curiosity caused her to taste the forbidden fruit. Hesiod gave the ancient Greeks the story of Pandora, where her curiosity opened the box that released all manner of evil on all humankind. Thomas Fuller, a 17th-century Anglican priest, offered this arresting metaphor: “Curiosity is a kernel of the forbidden fruit which still sticketh in the throat of a natural man, sometimes to the danger of his choking.”  Saint Augustine described the vice of curiosity as “a vain desire cloaked in the name of knowledge.” He warned that it was the temptation “to seek knowledge for its own sake.”

And we all know what curiosity did to the cat!

So why should we be cautious about curiosity? Don’t we want our students, as Gardner suggested, to be curious about the world and desire to explore it? Well, yes and no. Like all concepts we wrestle with in regard to Christian distinctiveness, curiosity has to be considered in the light of its telos—“towards what end?” After Bryannah studies the heart and learns about how it beats faster in exercise to get more oxygen to the muscles, what will happen to her curiosity about the heart? Or if Devon learns enough about the brain to read other people’s minds, will that deepen his love for God and his friends?

Twentieth-century philosopher Martin Heidegger offered a provocative distinction between curiosity and wonder. The problem with curiosity, he suggests, is that it always seeks the “new.” He described it as the “lust hidden under the title of knowledge and science. It seeks novelty only to leap from it again to another novelty.” Read that again. What are its implications?

In Proverbs 27:20, Solomon warns us that “human desire is never satisfied,” and again in Ecclesiastes (1:8), “No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content.”

I may be curious about a magic trick that astonishes me, but if I find out how the trick works, I’ll soon lose interest in watching it performed. Or if I’m curious about how massive airplanes can fly or how colossal ocean liners can float, once I learn the principles of aerodynamics and buoyancy, my curiosity is discharged. Like an itch, curiosity can be quenched. And then I’m off to a new shiny object. Unlike its deeper cousin, wonder.

Listen to Heidegger on wonder: “Wonder, on the other hand, focuses not so much on a particular thing, but on the totality of being. . . . It is in wonder that one can truly ask. . . . Why are there beings at all, instead of nothing?”

Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel echoes that thought with a concept he calls “radical amazement.” I quote him at length here because I think he expresses a deeper hope for our students than curiosity (Please pardon his masculine language bias. The bold font is mine).

Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. To find an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder. He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. . . . Radical amazement has a wider scope than any other act of man. While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality; not only to what we see, but also to the very act of seeing as well as to our own selves, to the selves that see and are amazed at their ability to see. The grandeur or mystery of being is not a particular puzzle to the mind, as, for example, the cause of volcanic eruptions. . . . Grandeur or mystery is something with which we are confronted everywhere and at all times. Even the very act of thinking baffles our thinking. . . .

If curiosity narrows to the cul-de-sac of knowledge, then wonder expands to the beginning of wisdom. If knowledge boosts our self-importance, wonder opens our eyes to the Glory of God, to the presence of Christ in all things.

Perhaps the most important assessment of our teaching isn’t how much we taught our students, but rather how much have we stimulated wonder in them, how much have we left them radically amazed.

Not how much we covered, but how much space have we created for moments of wonder and awe. Not how much knowledge students gained, but how much they remain perpetually surprised, baffled at the endless imagination, creativity, and love of our Creator.

I will give Heschel the final word: “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. . . . Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. . . . What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”