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38 curiosity
September 14, 2018+Dylan Selterman

Curiosity is One Key to Heterodoxy. Forced Memorization is Not

This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog. Narration begins at 1:30.

Research shows that intellectual curiosity and openness to ideas are important for academic success. These traits are also relevant for heterodoxy—that is, the more curious people are, the more they will be appreciative of different viewpoints. Studies show that curiosity (but not knowledge) predicts bipartisan attitude convergence about environmental threats such as climate change. Thus, curiosity should be a cornerstone of pedagogy and heterodoxy.

Most readers probably won’t object to this idea. But unfortunately, curiosity is de-emphasized in most contemporary educational environments, while rote memorization and high-stakes testing are prioritized—to the detriment of students’ well-being.

Most modern university courses function in a top-down, hierarchical manner, where the teacher acts as an ideological authority figure, forcing information into students’ minds through mandatory readings, lectures, assignments, and exams. Most schools create a coercive learning atmosphere, where students feel they have no choice but to obey, lest they receive low marks on their transcripts that may diminish future prospects. Students’ intrinsic goals matter little in course design, and curiosity is largely absent from learning outcomes. Advocates for educational alternatives have noted this type of academic environment is not only ineffective, but also perhaps immoral.

But what would an alternative educational model look like?

Student-Driven Learning

Democratic schools emphasize freedom of academic inquiry as well as social equality between students and faculty. There is no such thing as a singular truth in a such a school, because truth and knowledge are recognized as fluid constructs. Therefore, teachers never force their students to memorize facts or ideas, and students feel free to respectfully engage with their peers and treat teachers as equals. There is no standardized, enforced curriculum either, because students are free to develop their own educational paths through their sense of curiosity.

Education reformer and academic Daniel Greenberg argued that democracy relies on the free expression of ideas, free assembly, and equality of opportunity. These principles ought to be built into schools, because schools are a good rehearsal space for democratic norms. Greenberg and his colleagues went on to found the Sudbury Valley School, which has, for many worldwide, become a model for intellectual freedom and curiosity.

Some colleges and universities have adopted these principles into their pedagogical focus. For example, the New College of Florida does not assign letter/numbered grades, instead allowing students to shape their individualized curriculum based on their own curiosity and interests. At Deep Springs College, this is taken to an even further extreme, with students having control over admissions, faculty hiring, and other aspects of governance and administration. The documentary film Ivory Tower showcases what this type of academic community looks like, and it is strikingly different from most universities. Students not only are rigorously engaging with their coursework, but they also learn how to constructively communicate and disagree with each other.

Former student Daniel Leibovitz is quoted as saying:

The main attraction of Deep Springs, for me, was self-governance—having to compromise with people, and having to put myself in other people’s positions. And I don’t think that’s something natural for us, that has to be taught.”

In a dialogue with a different student, Joel Schlosser (a professor) remarked:

Every time I come in here and I say, what do you think about this, do you want to change these assignments, how do you like these readings, I’m trying to give you opportunities for agency…The purpose of this place is for you to create what you want here. The problem is, that for you to get what you want, you’ve got to cooperate with other people, which means trying to figure out a way to communicate your anger without being antagonistic.”

Can you imagine what this would look like at your institution? Would you enjoy working in a department where there is no required curriculum or coursework for undergraduates, no multiple-choice exams, and no letter/number grades? Or if those elements are present, they would be determined through democratic exercise, where students and faculty have equal voices and power in the decision-making process? Should students be allowed to design their own courses, select their own course readings, and assess their own academic achievements?

Reinforcing Orthodoxy

Heterodox Academy was built by scholars who are concerned about specific problems that our colleges and universities are suffering from, including intolerance for diverse opinions, and fears of dissent and disagreement that quell otherwise productive speech. Some proposed solutions involve correcting for underrepresentation of ideological minorities, as well as creating tools to help students engage with each other regarding potentially sensitive or politicized topics.

But another possibility is that the authoritarian construction of universities themselves is at the root of these problems, and these problems go hand-in-hand with the problem of students’ stifled curiosity. Standard instructional practices may actually be steering students toward narrow-mindedness and intolerance. A recent analysis shows that more education is linked with greater prejudice toward those with different ideological viewpoints. This is exactly the opposite of what we want schools to do.

Students are socialized to value their own knowledge (much of which is temporary), which is reinforced by the mandatory assessments given to students. Walking out of classrooms with exam grades of As and Bs can give students an overinflated sense of confidence in their own knowledge or abilities relative to others, which can be detrimental to intellectual humility and curiosity. Recent studies have shown that college GPA is negatively correlated with students’ motivation to be creative and innovative, but academic achievement is positively correlated with intellectual arrogance. The better students perform, the more narrow-minded they become.

A commonly held belief is that schools promote enlightened thinking. But why would that be the case? As educational historians note, schools were created to accomplish the reverse — to indoctrinate students and to promote obedience to authority figures. Some early proponents of compulsory schooling were religious zealots, who believed that children were born with original sin, and forced them to memorize Bible verses in classrooms. These methods (lectures plus rote memorization) are still commonly utilized in colleges today.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, the focus shifted toward secular topics — such as mathematics, chemistry, history, literature — but the methods remained strikingly similar. Instead of indoctrinating students to be subservient to religious institutions, the goal shifted to make students subservient to the state, the military, and future employers. School was designed to impede free expression and stifle independent thought. No wonder professors and students feel inhibited to express controversial or unorthodox viewpoints.

While it’s true that academic researchers are genuinely interested in free inquiry and discovery in their work, this often melts away when we step into the classroom and students are coerced into taking exams, reading books, or writing essays on topics they don’t enjoy, simply because the faculty value them. These methods are the antithesis of curiosity and free expression, which are central to our goals of promoting heterodoxy. Instead, universities ought to be truly democratic institutions. Students should retain full agency and autonomy in their academic goals, as well as power (through self-governance) to shape the policies and procedures of their community.

Further Reading:

Goyal, N. (2016). Schools on trial: How freedom and creativity can fix our educational malpractice. New York: Doubleday, an Imprint of Penguin Random House.

Gray, P. (2015). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. New York: Basic Books.


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