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Brown Sculpture
September 28, 2021+John Tomasi
+Open Inquiry+Campus Policy

Curiosity U

This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, “Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog.” Narration begins at 2:10.

Idee di pietra (Ideas of Stone), created by Guiseppe Penone.

Photo by John Tomasi.

On the main green at Brown University, there is a sculpture by the Italian artist Guiseppe Penone. Penone is best known for large works exploring the relationship between man and nature. The installation at Brown, Idee di pietra (Ideas of Stone), subtly interrogates that intersection. And yet, to the casual observer, the piece is something at once more prosaic and more strange: a boulder caught in the branches of a tree.

Taking my lunch break on the main green, I enjoy watching people’s reactions to the Penone installation. Sometimes groups touring the campus — prospective students and anxious parents — walk directly beneath the sculpture, unaware of the artistic drama taking place above their heads. If just one person in the group looks up, I have observed, the rhythm of the whole group is disrupted. Eyes follow eyes upward as the group comes to a disjointed halt, some carrying forward as others stop dead in their tracks. There is a moment of surprise as people turn to one another, strangers unexpectedly united by perplexity. A few glance around and laugh nervously, as though wondering if some joke is being played on them. After a pause, the group reorganizes and returns to its steady, predictable touring pace.

At the edge of the green, as the group slows to fit through an arch, one person, a prospective student perhaps, pauses. Before disappearing through the arch, she takes a last look back across the green and up at Penone’s tree-borne riddle. It is that student’s look that fascinates me.

Rethinking Telos

In 2016, Jonathan Haidt gave a talk at Duke University that has proven highly generative for the Heterodox Academy membership and community. If every university must declare a commitment to a single highest goal, Haidt asked, should that goal be truth or social justice? For Haidt, famously, the answer is clear: Every university must have one sacred value, and that value is truth.

Applying the principle of constructive disagreement, heterodox: the blog has hosted pieces subjecting Haidt’s thesis to scrutiny from a great variety of critical perspectives. (For example, Oliver Traldi’s “The Truth is Not Enough”; Patrick J. Casey’s “Truth and Social Justice: How Universities Can Embrace Both of These Values”; and Justin McBrayer’s “Even Truth U Cares About Social Justice.”) Is it “truth” that universities should valorize, or some more compound epistemic concept such as “knowledge”? Even if social justice is not properly the final goal of universities, shouldn’t universities adhere to justice as a necessary condition, or side constraint, of their knowledge pursuit? If there is a truth about the proper requirements of social justice, doesn’t that suggest that universities can, indeed must, pursue both goals at once?

Yet my interest today lies elsewhere. I am wondering why that student at Brown looked back at Penone’s sculpture. I believe that what stopped and turned her was something unique in its simplicity and power: curiosity. And curiosity, I will suggest, is a concept of utmost importance to the members of Heterodox Academy.

On Curiosity

To be curious, at root, is to wonder about possibilities. Curiosity is what draws us to look behind the curtain of the ordinary. It is about being impatient with the status quo, including even a status quo of one’s creation. Curiosity generates a gentle impatience with the given, the obvious, combined with a hopefulness about the new and yet unseen. For individuals, curiosity stirs us from our slumbers, encouraging us to throw off the heavily patterned blankets of the lives we have lived so far and step out into the adventures of time and change. What could be more human than this? In the pantheon of human experiences, I count curiosity as among the most basic, standing alongside even love and loneliness.

A facet of human experience everywhere and always, curiosity has a special status within communities of learning. After all, it is curiosity that stimulates the pursuit of understanding. In that sense, curiosity is prior to truth and knowledge alike. Further, it is our respect for the minds of our fellow citizens, for our shared human capacity to dream and wonder—to wonder not only for ourselves but also about ourselves and the different ways our lives might go—that gives our concern for social justice its point. As with truth, so with justice: Curiosity comes first. If there is a single value the university must hold sacred, I submit, it is curiosity.

Over the past decade, while campus battles have raged, the fruits of curiosity have continued to ripen and to drop among us, delicious in their variety. In 2019, a team of scientists captured the first ever photograph of a black hole, a huge step forward in physicists' understanding of the universe. In the UK, a team of historians and geneticists used mixed methods to positively identify the remains of Richard III, King of England and Lord of Ireland, whose death in 1485 is widely understood to mark the end of the English Middle Age. At Brown, brain scientists recently found intriguing links between political polarization and aversion to uncertainty, a phenomenon they traced on both sides of the ideological aisle. Meanwhile, just a decade ago, astronomers knew of only 450 or so planets beyond our solar system; today they know of more than 4,000.

It is not only scholarship that is driven by curiosity: learning leans hard on curiosity too. My first semester in college, I took a philosophy course in which, after reading Descartes, we were assigned a paper with the prompt, “How do you know that your life is not a dream?” Philosophy grabbed me that day and has yet to let go. I’m guessing that most HxA members could share similar stories of their own. But curiosity also drives vocationally based forms of learning, and sometimes in surprising places. At Crossroads RI, an agency for the homeless in Providence, medical manikins in a window near the shelter routinely spark curiosity in homeless clients who are looking for a career, often leading them to ask about the certified nurses assistants classes in which those manikins are used*. How might my life go? Where might this course of learning take me? It is true that curiosity makes students of us all. But the deeper truth is that curiosity unites us all as students.

Compared with academic teloi such as truth or social justice, curiosity encourages ancillary virtues, patterns of interaction, that are more lovely. We all know the downside of the “warrior” attitudes associated with the pursuit of social justice on college campuses: the self-righteous anger of de-platformers, or the nihilistic approach to social conflict in which feelings trump reason. But if the attitudes of social justice are overwarm, truth has icy companions of its own. Against the plea for “safe spaces,” defenders of truth sometimes assert that the university should be a place of discomfort, of intellectual danger—or that walking onto campus should be like stepping into a cold shower. “Learning hurts, kid, get used to it,” they say.

Perhaps. But, by contrast, there is something connective, and thus joyful, about curiosity. When someone begins a sentence, “I wonder why…?” it would take a hard heart indeed not to hear them asking, “Could you help me understand how…?” or, “Shall we think about this together?” Each expression of curiosity is an invitation to connect. When we see curiosity in another, we recognize in them a place for ourselves. It is a place to enjoy an intellectual adventure with another.

Like truth and social justice, curiosity carries an imperative of its own. The primary demand of curiosity is that it be allowed to roam free. What’s more, by its very nature, curiosity recognizes only boundaries that it sets for itself. Individual by individual, working-group by working group, curiosity stakes out and claims possession of its own domain. But even this sells curiosity short. Curiosity is an inveterate transgressor of boundaries. After all, none of us can know with certainty where another person’s curiosity might lead. Disciplinary boundaries and ideological ones too: No fence can stop curiosity. It slips past every wall.

And yet, unlike truth or justice, curiosity finds its imperatival power precisely in its own gentleness. Consider the phrase: “I wonder why…?” In its quiet and unassuming way, this expression of curiosity depends on no reason or justification beyond itself. Instead, curiosity is justified simply because, and wherever, it is expressed.

While this self-justifying power attends expressions of curiosity everywhere, the status and power of curiosity is amplified by the special conditions of university life. On campus, whenever a colleague or a student leads with a sincere expression of curiosity — “I wonder whether…” — that expression has the ability to stop and turn even the weightiest conversation, like an Archimedean lever. And woe to any authority figure who fails to honor the insistent force of curiosity. Teachers or scholars who discount sincere expressions of curiosity — say by ignoring an inconvenient question, or by belittling the person asking it — reveal themselves as pretenders, as bullies and frauds, in the kingdom of learning. Fail to honor curiosity, even for a moment, and the mask of authority melts from your face.

For all these reasons, I suggest that the practice of curiosity is a sacred value, the highest of goals, for learning communities of all kinds — high schools, colleges, and research universities too. In all such places, curiosity arises, and asserts its imperatival claims, prior even to the concepts of truth and justice.

So curiosity is a sacred value within every learning community. But, like that student on the Brown green looking back at Penone’s boulder, curiosity deserves a special place in the worldview of the readers of this blog. The basic impulse of heterodoxy is an openness to questions of the form: “I wonder what else might be said about this topic?” Open yourself to such questions and you are on the true path to heterodoxy. For you are walking, and leading others by your example, in the direction of a uniquely noble destination: Call it Curiosity U.

*Reported by Amy Tomasi, social worker at Crossroads, Sept. 22, 2021.


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