A Perfectly Curious Book

Professor Susan Engel remembers growing up. She recalls small details. Not only did she eat bugs, she remembers when and where, and which bugs she ate (potato bugs). As a pre-schooler, she remembers watching TV while sitting under the ironing board, comfortably asking all sorts of questions of Nonna, who was ironing the family’s clothes above her. In a one-room school house, Mrs. Grubb’s imbalanced approach to curiosity and education began a lifetime of inquiry. One of Professor Engel’s works-in-progress is a evaluative measure for curiosity, which seems consistent with the way most people think about school in the 21st century, and, to me, wildly  counterintuitive.

The right book tends to find me at precisely the right time. That’s what happened yesterday when I started The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. It’s fair to say that I devoured it in a single weekend.

In my studies and writing about creativity, curiosity has always been an underground river. I can hear it and sense it,  but it’s difficult to see. Curiosity differs with each person and their current motivation, and with every situation. It also tends to vary in duration and intensity depending upon personal interest at the moment, and available information.

Curiosity behaviors are familiar, easy to recognize: “We pick up objects to look at them more closely, peel things open and take them apart, ask other people questions, read books, do experiments, and wander into unfamiliar situations.”

Some people are more likely to do this than others.

“The quality of a child’s attachment has a powerful influence on the vigor and depth of her exploration of the world around her.” When a child is insecure or uncertain about their bond with mom, he or she is less likely to “make physical and psychological expeditions to gather information.” As the book unfolds, this becomes one of its most important ideas. In lower-income, and/or lower-education households, parents tend to provide specific operating instructions for life (“put that down,” “come to the table,” “not now,” “leave the dog alone”), but parents in households less troubled with economic issues often encourage and entertain open questions, theoretical ideas, and forms of play. Reading and storytelling may have little to do with the practical. Open-minded freedom builds self-confidence, resilience, and curiosity. (Not so sure? This is a 200 page book extensive references to past work by serious scholars).

Unfortunately, curiosity is very difficult to define and even harder to measure. (Not that learning is easy to measure, unless it’s wrapped in the short-term evaluative tools that structure contemporary education.)

This 2015 book pays less attention to mobile devices and the internet and social media than I do. A Second Edition would be wonderful, especially if Professor Engel expands the book to connect these innovations to curiosity and personalized learning.

Returning to economic advantage and curiosity, “children growing up in poverty hear far fewer total number of words, have a harder time learning to read, and ultimately are less likely to do well in school by the time they are in third grade…” Professor Engel goes on, “if a child lives with parents who only use words to manage practical tasks, he may struggle to use language for less practical, more contemplative purposes.” In turn, this affects the ability of children to formulate and ask good questions, which is a very important way to express curiosity and learn about the world and one’s place in it.

Focus not on the school experience, because that’s only part of child’s experience. Instead, focus on what children hear adults say and see adults do. Early on, children overtly mimic. Grown adults mimic too… following a parent or aunt or uncle’s path as a result of a gift or what seemed to be an inconsequential conversation at the time. I just found a book about world cultures that my aunt and uncle gave me when I was nine years old. I remember reading the book dozens of times. Many decades later, it’s clear that the book shaped my current professional activities in global education. I did not learn much of this in school, or in any formal setting. It was my own curiosity that shaped these ideas, and continues to shape them today.

School simply isn’t the place to nurture curiosity. There’s just too much other stuff to do. There is constant pressure to prepare the students for the upcoming test, to complete the project on schedule, to score the grades necessary for advancement. Distractions–which are essential to curiosity and exploration–are deeply discouraged. Inquisitive students must be not derail the classroom conversation, however interesting and significant their questions may be.

Is curiosity the opposite of education?

The good Professor doesn’t take the argument this far, but she sometimes comes close. Borrowing some of her own thinking and adding it to my own… Curiosity is intuitive, fluid, wide, deep, driven by interest, exceedingly difficult to measure, and essentially unrestricted by time and space. Education is defined by curriculum experts and highly structured. It is highly structured to make efficient use of time and space, and adheres to a strict timetable measured by 45 minute intervals, weeks of achievement, school years and grade levels. Education cannot run too deep or too wide because there are so many items that must be taught to so many people. Education is driven by rules, not student interest (for some, this changes in higher education). Measurement of short-term impact can be done, but the longer the period of measurement, the more variables complicate the results.

Traditional coursework on The Civil War takes students through causes (difficult to understand without lots of broader context), Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation, John Wilkes Booth, funeral cortege, and the dull political history of Andrew Johnson and reconstruction. Lots of education happening here, but the sheer volume of information smothers any attempt at global context or personal investigation of related stories. The story is just too complicated for education. It’s better suited to the uneven and long-term learning that curiosity can provide.

A student guided by curiosity might begin with the failure of tobacco as the South’s cash crop, its replacement with cotton and big cotton’s reliance upon the slave trade. Follow that line and you’ll bump into the enormous economic leap made possible by the cotton gin. Then, it’s off to England where Manchester’s mills make a fortune with cheap cotton from American slaves. When that supply is threatened by events leading up to the Civil War, the British look to India for an alternative cotton source, amplifying the growth and power of the British Empire. India becomes a glorious distraction–stunning history, spectacular music, art, dance, religion, food. Later, a fight for independence with Gandhi and nonviolent protest as a new way of thinking that informs US student protests to help end the Vietnam War, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to challenge authority in very productive ways. Back to Manchester for its rivalry with nearby Liverpool; follow  that line to the economic and social conditions that breed The Beatles and change popular music and culture (including George Harrison’s encounters with Indian music, and so on).

I know we don’t teach that way, but I know I learn that way.

As I understand more about how we teach, and how we learn, there may be more to eating bugs than there is to textbooks.

Big Ideas Simply Explained

Three subjects that I can never seem to understand as completely as I would like:

  • Philosophy
  • Economics
  • Psychology

Whenever I read a book about any of these subjects, I feel like a student, which means, I am reading because duty requires me to complete the book. The subjects interest me, but too many of the books I have read on these subjects are dreary, slow-moving, too dense with ideas for any reasonable person to sort out and retain their valuable understanding. Pictures help, but many of the ideas held within these disciplines are difficult to illustrate with anything better than wordy diagrams.

A year or so ago, I noticed a series of three books put together by Dorling Kindersley (DK)’s collaborative teams in the UK and India. They’ve got the formula right, and as a result, I have spent the last year happily browsing, and learning, from:

  • The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
  • The Economics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
  • The Psychology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

A month or so ago, the same company released The Politics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained, and at some point, I’ll get to that one, too. Right now, I’m still working my way through the first three volumes (about 1,000 pages total).

Three DK BooksSo what’s so special?

First,there is no single author. The collaborative approach focuses on presentation, clarity and consistency. This is less the work of a brilliant psychology teacher, more like a good old fashioned browse through, say, The World Book Encyclopedia from days of old. The type treatments are bold. There are pull-out quotes. There is color. No single idea runs more than a few pages. Everything is presented in a logical flow. There are boxes filled with biographical details. There is a clear statement of predecessor ideas and influences for each idea, and there is an equally clear statement about those in the future who built upon each idea. There are color pictures and diagrams. It’s tidy, presented for smart adult readers but certainly suitable research material for any school report.

The Philosophy Book is written by four academics and two writers: Will Buckingham is a philosopher and novelist with a special interest in the interplay between philosophy and narrative storytelling. Marcus Weeks is a writer, and author. Clive Hill is an academic focused on intellectualism in the modern world. Douglas Burnham is a philosophy professor and prolific writer on the subject. Peter J. King is a doctor of Philosophy who lectures at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. John Marenborn is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK, whose expertise is medieval philosophy. Taken as a group, they’ve got their philosophical bases covered (each of the books is put together by a team with similar skills). Marcus Weeks is the connection between all three books.

The bright yellow Philosophy book introduces the whole idea in comfortable language:

Philosophy is…a chance simply to wonder what life and the universe are all about…Philosophy is not so much about coming up with the answers to fundamental questions as it is about the process of trying to find out those answers, using reasoning rather than accepting…conventional views or conventional authority.”

So begins an introductory essay that introduces debate and dialogue, existence and knowledge, logic and language, morality, religion, and systems of thought and beliefs. A red color burst is the bridge into a timeline that begins the conversation in 624 B.C.E. And so, early on, we meet Pythagoras, who should be famous for more than his geometric theorem. In 428 B.C.E.–that’s about 2,500 years ago–Pythagorus developed a remarkable idea, that everything in the universe conforms to mathematical rules and ratios, and determined that this was true both of forms and ideas. Pythagorus was the leader of a religious cult, in which he was the Messiah, and his followers thought of his work as revelations. Here was a man for whom reasoning was the secret of the universe. He wrote, or said:

There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.”


Reason is immortal. All else is mortal.”

SiddharthaTurn the page and there’s Siddhartha Gautama and Buddhism’s four noble truths, explained in terms that anybody can understand, followed by the Eightfold Path presented in the Dharma Wheel. Siddhartha is covered in four good pages, and then, it’s time for Confucius and his Five Conscious Relationships.

All three of these men–Pythagorus, Siddhartha and Confucius–lived and worked around 500 B.C.E. More or less, they were contemporaries. A century later, philosophy turns to what is later called science, as Democritus and Leucippus come with the idea of atoms and the emptiness of space. (Seemed very early to me, too!) At about the same time, this from Socrates:

The life which is unexamined is not worth living.”

Jumping ahead to the middle of the book, Britain’s David Hume is considering human nature in the mid-1700s, and, in particular, the ways we cobble together facts:

In our reasonings concerning fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance. A wise man therefore proportions his beliefs to the evidence.”

Thinking in the present day, Palestinian philosopher Edward Said criticizes imperialism, Australian Peter Singer advocates for animal rights, and Bulgarian-born French philosopher Julia Kristeva questions the relationship between feminism and power. It’s a large field, and with The Philosophy Book, it’s possible for the average person to navigate with greater confidence than before.

The other two books are equally good.

The Economics Book begins with an article about Thomas Aquinas’s thoughts on prices, markets, and morality; the provision of public goods with thoughts by David Hume, whose words from the 1700s certainly resonate today:

Where the riches are engrossed by a few, these must contribute very largely to the supplying of the public necessities.”

Hume is among the few whose ideas appear in more than one of these volumes. And–I just noticed–The Philosophy Book tends to be stories about the people behind the ideas, The Economics Book tends more toward the ideas with less frequent stories about the people behind them (often because economic ideas are credited to multiple sources, I suppose). Making our way through The Age of Reason (“man is a cold, rational calculator;” “the invisible hand of the market brings order”);  on to economic bubbles (beginning with tulip mania in 1640); game theory and John (A Beautiful Mind) Nash; market uncertainty, Asian Tiger economies, the intersection of GDPs and women’s issues, inequality and economic growth, and more. Great book, but a bit slower going than Philosophy.

Psych Book SpreadThird in the trilogy is the bright red volume, The Psychology Book. As early as the year 190 in the current era, Galen of Pergamon (in today’s Turkey) is writing about the four temperaments of personality–melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric, and sanguine. Rene Descartes bridges all three topics–Philosophy, Economics and Psychology overlap with one another–with his thinking on the role of the body and the role of the mind as wholly separate entities. We know the name Binet (Alfred Binet) from the world of standardized testing, but the core of his thinking has nothing whatsoever to do with standardized thinking. Instead, he believed that intelligence and ability change over time. In his early testing, Binet intended to capture a helpful snapshot of one specific moment in a person’s development. And so the tour through human (and animal) behavior continues with Pavlov and his dogs, John B. Watson and his use of research to build the fundamentals of advertising, B.F. Skinner’s birds, Solomon Asch’s experiments to uncover the weirdness of social conformity, Stanley Milgram’s creepy experiments in which people inflict pain on others, Jean Piaget on child development, and work on autism by Simon Baron-Cohen (he’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s cousin).

When I was in high school and college,  I was exposed to all of this stuff, but only a small amount remained in my mind. Perhaps that was because I was also trying to read the complete works of Shakespeare, a book a week of modern utopian fiction, The Canterbury Tales, and studying geology at the same time. In high school and college, these topics were just more stuff to plough through. No context, no life experience, no connection to most of the material. Now, as an adult, it’s different. Like everyone I know, and everyone you know, I’m still juggling way too much in an average week, but I can now read this material with a real hope of understanding and retaining the material. Cover to cover, times three, these books will take you a year or two, but… without a test the next morning, you’ll be surprised how interesting philosophy, psychology and economics turn out to be. Just read them in your spare time, and behold (great word, “behold”) the ways in which humans have put it all together over several millennia. It’s a terrific story!

%d bloggers like this: