The challenge this week was “curiosity”. This blog is more about loss of curiosity.
The mark of an educated person is their insatiable curiosity about the world around them. These are people who want to learn as much about whatever they can, whether it is philosophy or ploughing, Shakespeare’s sonnets or pigeon breeding. Through a wide range of interests the mind is broadened.
I’ve been involved in medical training for many years and frequently been surprised by a lack of curiosity displayed in highly intelligent, career driven students I meet. A recent complaint by a group of students was that they have been given six hours of lectures and then discovered that the subject would not be examined, this was, they said, a waste. They could not see this as a subject peripheral to their main studies with value in their work. Even if it didn’t have direct relevance it was nevertheless interesting.
What was previously called natural science has become divided into discrete areas of interest – woe betides if the clean scientific method is confused by speculation or philosophy, there is no room for that. These must be kept separate, and yet… many of the greatest discoveries were made through speculation and philosophy based on simple curiosity, later, confirmed, or sometimes refuted. One of the greatest zoologists Jean-Baptiste Lamarck called his scientific treatise “Philosophie Zoologique” and the theory known as Lamarkism (in which a repeated physical alterations to a biological entity, eg cutting off rat’s tails and breeding ought to produce a race of tails without rats or more likely tailless rats!) was later found to be false but in so doing the philosophical approach lead to greater discoveries. There are many examples of this approach stretching back to Socrates.
Children are born with an insatiable inquisitiveness about the world around them which goes well beyond mere factual knowledge imposed upon them by our educational system. Methods used for instruction can suppress curiosity encouraging passive learning of dry facts – evidence based learning. Curiosity flourishes wherever the environment encourages a student’s responsibility for their own learning and the learning process. But this is perceived to be inefficient in the classroom. It is important for parents and teachers to cultivate this curiosity, not only in their charges, but in themselves and how to set strategies both to support curiosity, and pace education remains a challenge. Medical teachers must balance teaching facts, techniques and protocols with those approaches that help students cultivate curiosity. Medicine has been described to me as the management of uncertainty. How to sustain a student’s curiosity and wonder in the face of this remains the challenge.
This picture incorporates both the X-ray of an infant and a steel ship’s hull with a prominent outline of a bolt holding the plates together, launched upon a sea of uncertainty.