The Cultivation of Curiosity

Whilst preparing some reflections on Martha Nussbaum’s Creating Capabilities, which continues to develop her long standing research within the areas of Human Development, we were reminded of her recent argument concerning the current state of Education and its relation to our own aims and objectives. In one of her most recent books, Not for Profit, she passionately rejects the idea that education, whilst being necessary for the growth of an economy, should be primarily seen as a tool of economic growth. This argument is a complex one, but what she states is that educational needs are much broader than those that are just required by the commercial sectors. In particular, she demonstrates that the Humanities and the Arts within all levels of education are being sidelined in favour of more traditional academic subjects that are geared towards the needs of business.

In a recent interview Professor Nussbaum presented the problem in more detail. “The humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers as useless frills, at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they’re rapidly loosing their place in curricula and also in the hearts and minds of parents and children.” Her solution to this problem is to broaden educational subject matter as opposed to reducing it in favour of focussed specialisms, “If the pedagogy is wonderful, the early specialization of subject matter is a problem.” However, her overall concern is that of academic autonomy and how it is being eroded at a substantial rate by corporate donors and funding regimes that are “educationally horrendous”.

It is clear that her fears are genuine, the development of credited internal academies (supported by universities) within the larger corporate organisations is something that now appears to be an established reality, but what we have yet to understand is what level of reductionism is operating through the curricula of these academies. As Professor Nussbaum argues the overwhelming need for imaginative, creative and critical thinking skills is now more important than ever and organisations (public and private) that do not recognise this are already sounding their own death knell. The humanities, along with the arts are the foundations of such skills and to have their influence reduced or worse, lose them altogether, would be catastrophic for the potential growth of human development. “Even if business culture were our only goal, the liberal arts promote innovation and a healthy workplace where corruption is unmasked by critical voices. For these reasons, Singapore and China have reformed education to add a lot more humanities and arts. The global economy is highly mobile. Nations won’t do well if their students think by rote and don’t know how to imagine new alternatives.”

Despite their previous philosophical differences we are sure that Professor Nussbaum would agree with the observations made by Michel Foucault around the genuine need to cultivate new cultures of curiosity. “Curiosity is seen as a futility. However, I like the word; it suggests something quite different to me. It evokes “care”; it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it; a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd; a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing; a lack of respect for traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental. I dream of a new age of curiosity. We have the technical means; the desire is there; there is an infinity of things to know; the people capable of doing such work exist. So what is our problem?”

What indeed?