Curiouser and curiouser…

With very little provocation I could go on a rant about how the industrial model has created a mind-numbing system of American Public education, but I’ll settle for a small kvetch. We all know that teachers have very little opportunity for personal creativity in the curriculum these days given the great number of standardized tests that students are taking—be they for Accelerated Reading or Standards of Learning or Benchmarks or Advanced Placement or SAT. It’s a ridiculous way to try to educate people, and what causes me the most anguish is way we effectively quench every spark of curiosity in all but the most resilient students.

The NEA reports that children are reading less, but in my experience, people will read if they want what’s in the book: a story, pictures, or information. Can we encourage kids (and grownups) to want to know more? I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a dedicated, concerned teacher to try to keep curiosity burning in a system that presents education as twelve years of conveyor-belt classes laden with prepackaged knowledge satisfying some unnamed test writer who’s not even your teacher.

It’s a mess.

But what is the practical effect of the lack of curiosity? Why do we need the average person to be curious? Why would we want people asking questions all the time? Isn’t it enough just to make sure everyone masters some core information?

A recent article in the Washington Post told the story of a man who endured a six-year headache and spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to find the answer to his medical problem. In the end, it was the patient’s persistence and his own research that resolved the case. Here’s the last paragraph of the article:

Lee Nelson said the experience has radically altered his view of doctors. “I’m very thankful I had the [financial] resources and the gray matter to do what I did,” he said. “But I think that a lot of physicians have lost their intellectual curiosity and don’t want to work with a patient.”

When people stop being intellectually curious, when they stop asking questions, then the doctors only see what they are looking to see, and the car mechanic will never hear that sound you’re describing, and the librarian will do one or two searches with a couple of keywords and say, “I’m sorry. We don’t have any information on that topic.”

We need ordinary people to be curious and to pay attention to the details of life. We need bank employees who will ask questions about odd checks and nursing home attendants who will notice when a resident seems depressed or unwell or in need of new glasses and not chalk it up to being “old.” We need each other to be curious, attentive, and creative. It’s not just something for a few intellectuals or artistic types. Asking questions and paying attention—being curious—make a difference, for all of us, every day.


The desk where I work at the library is a teaching place as well as a finding place. Parents push their children forward, “Now tell the librarian what you need.” And I ask them, “What can I do for you today?” And so the children learn to articulate their questions, to explain assignments, to interact with an adult, and to be bold. Sometimes they are tiny children who want a picture stamped on their hands. Sometimes they are children who are just learning English and who have come to practice on the friendly children’s librarians. Sometimes they are cranky children who resent their parents and their teachers and every other grownup who participates in the Worldwide Adult Conspiracy. And almost always they are children who are learning the proper use of please and thank-you.

We’ve been running a game in the library this week. Our library elf, Eugene, hides in the children’s section and young people who find him get a small treat. The 2- and 3- and 4-year olds come running out of storytime to search for the elf and collect their prize. Such excitement! Any fear they may have felt at approaching the desk disappears in their triumph.

“I found the elf! I found the elf!” one little girl exclaimed.

“And what do you say?” prompted her mother as she picked a lollipop out of the basket.