Monday, September 27, 2010

Curioser and Curioser

I recently read an essay by Nicholas Thomas entitled ‘Licensed Curiosity: Cook’s Pacific Voyages.’ The essay doesn’t make for particularly easy reading, but it does make a few thought-provoking points. Thomas explores multiple ideas here – the impact the Pacific voyages had on the British public, the dubious morality of this kind of colonial project, and the tentative nature of science.

What I found most interesting was his discussion of ‘curiosity,’ regarded by the Georgians as a character flaw that indicated a lack of integrity and intellectual heft. According to Thomas “…there are many forceful statements in a variety of genres to the effect that curiosity is feminine, unstable, somehow tarnished…curiosity was deeply, almost casually linked with commerce…and with the moral ambiguities and latent corruption of commercial society.”

Reading the essay reminded me that we don’t pay enough attention to the words we use – so many of them have long and remarkable histories that are sandpapered away by the easy casualness of familiarity. Throwaway lines such as ‘Curiosity killed the cat’ give us a clue to the word’s contested past, but these are not phrases to which we attach much significance.

To think that curiosity was once considered morally tentative, almost a vice, is to be reminded that knowledge was once disputed and ‘in the making.’ Around the time of Cook’s voyages, disciplinary territories were very much up for grabs, scholars and proponents were still developing investigative procedures for their preferred areas of inquiry, and were also working to establish that such inquiry, was in fact, worthwhile.

Would it be too much to say that our relationship with, and approach to knowledge has changed almost completely since then? We can get degrees in more specialized fields of study than ever before, can access more information, can pursue very diverse interests. Almost no one I know harbors doubts about whether or not knowledge has intrinsic worth, although there is still a disciplinary hierarchy with ‘hard’ sciences ruling the roost. We also value curiosity and encourage its expression – the internet itself is a sprawling testament to the wide range of our interests.

All of this is good, except for the fact that we tend to confuse an equal respect for disciplines with an ‘equivalence’ of disciplines. As a psychologist, I am quick to challenge students and professionals who dismiss the social sciences as ‘soft’ studies – but I am equally uncomfortable with colleagues who claim that qualitative enquiry will always answer questions more deeply, and address issues more meaningfully than quantitative research. I am sensing more of an academic ‘extremism’ amongst researchers, an unfortunate ease with making unsubstantiated claims on behalf of a discipline.

Standards for learning are also being loosened – the year I gave my school-leaving exams was one of the first years in which students taking the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (I.C.S.E) were given the option to ‘drop’ the sciences for economics and commerce (previously, only students with persistent learning disabilities were offered this alternative). Even at the age of 14, the choice seemed like something of a cop-out. Since then, I hear that maths has also been converted into an ‘optional’ subject. Consequently, one has a significant number of students passing through the country’s premier high schools with only a middle-school understanding of maths and science.* I am not sure about the statistics, but I’m willing to assume that a disproportionate number of these students are girls, who have historically been socialized to think of numeracy as a male domain.

Moreover, grading is increasingly being relaxed, to the point where students with percentages in the late 90s couldn’t get into a college of their choice in Bombay this year – simply because there were so many of them. Just this morning, I read that a number of I.C.S.E schools in the city have decided to substitute exams with continuous assessment, and percentages with grades, ostensibly to ease ‘pressure’ on students up to the 8th grade.

While I appreciate the spirit in which the measure has been undertaken, I entertain doubts about the implementation – do we have the training, the know-how and the syllabus to administer continuous assessments, given that so many schools have relied on examinations for decades? Do we have any way in which to ensure that the projects and essays which will replace exams will ensure learning? I ask this question because I know for a fact that wealthy students in elite schools ‘outsource’ assignments to consultants. How will the 8th graders be equipped to make the eventual transition to a point and marks driven school leaving exam?

It seems to me that we have today is an odd mix constituted of greater flexibility in assessment and basic study, accompanied by the perception that all fields of inquiry are equal and will provide us with equivalent sets of skills. There is less opportunity to cultivate an interest in subjects that aren’t immediately appealing, and almost no requirement to persist with fundamentals that seem boring and difficult.

This somewhat tenuous foundation, combined with easy access to vast swathes of information, can either result in people knowing much more about less, or less about much more. It’s a bold statement to make, of course, but I think it has some merit. I’ve been hearing murmurs about the dangers of living in a society inhabited by highly-specialized knowledge workers – I’m less familiar with the perils associated with a dilettante culture, but I’m sure the literature is out there.

There is an imbalance between the knowledge potentially available to us, and the tools we are being equipped with to engage with it. Are we being offered greater freedom to exercise our curiosity, or being implicitly told that curiosity is ‘enough?’ Where will this lead? I’m curious. 

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