Why the Public Needs Intellectual Curiosity

Today, it is becoming increasingly difficult to evaluate something that is not quantifiable and that is the problem for those of us defending the liberal arts. That does not mean that the liberal arts are priceless; just that naming their price is not something that science can hypothesize and test. And we live in an era when testing is king. The knowledge that society prioritizes is the knowledge which is most useful.

Not all of us are happy about this arrangement. Frank Bruni made an admirable attempt earlier in the week to articulate the good that the liberal arts have done him:

… it’s dangerous to forget that in a democracy, college isn’t just about making better engineers but about making better citizens, ones whose eyes have been opened to the sweep of history and the spectrum of civilizations.

I could not agree more, while also adding to this that the purpose of liberal arts education ought to be to cultivate intellectual curiosity. Actually, this ought to be the purpose of any sort of education (and it can be achieved in the sciences and the arts alike), but the liberal arts are particularly attuned to cultivating intellectual curiosity because the discipline of the intellect is their chief goal. As I once told a freshman class, an educated individual does not have the right answers, but she knows how to ask the right questions.

And it is this ability to ask the right questions which is strikingly deficient in today’s society. While America’s leadership is not the only group ill equipped to ask critical questions, it is perhaps the most visibly deficient. This does not mean that liberal arts education, as it is often conceived, is a panacea for this affliction. It is hardly a foregone conclusion that we might have avoided the housing bubble or the war in Iraq if more Americans had gone to universities with the curriculum of St. John’s College.

But if the liberal arts will not save the world, neither will the servile arts. This struck me years ago, while performing low level administration on a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education program in the Beltway. The program, like almost everything that calls itself “scientific” was substantially was supported by oil kingdoms in the Middle East, even though, despite their best efforts, these nations had not managed to give rise to any notable companies or entrepreneurs.

This is not for a lack of effort. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology has almost twice the endowment of the MIT. But innovation requires more than technical proficiency. Ideas that eventually turn into inventions need time to marinate as curiosity before anyone realizes their practical applications; x-rays, for instance, were discovered by Wilhelm Rontgen, a physicist with an intellectual curiosity for Crookes tubes, rather than a desire to found the first radiology department. Curiosity is a more nurturing mother to invention than necessity is, because, as Tolstoy said, all a man needs ultimately is six feet of ground.

Not all innovation is equal. This man was once thought to be an innovator. But that too is a purpose of the liberal arts: To sift through the diversity of notions that constitute a civilization and discern what deserves our attention and what deserves our ignorance. If one needs to defend the liberal arts, then these two values—curiosity and discernment—should provide reason enough.

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