When I heard those words as a child, I knew that the Man in the Yellow Hat was going to have to rescue Curious George in just a few pages. The formula was clear: George got curious, George got in danger, George got rescued…usually by the Man in the Yellow Hat. Even now, George’s antics lead me to intense questioning, like “why did the Man in the Yellow Hat think it was a good idea to leave George alone,” and “Wait–why did the Man take George from his happy existence in his native habitat to live in an urban environment?”
I didn’t, however, learn that curiosity was bad. That is a major difference between me and almost all of my 11th and 12th grade students. In a recent class discussion, I used the word “curiosity,” and was struck by how many students seemed to assume that word had negative connotations. I thought–hoped–that was a fluke—so I did what any English teacher would do: assign a writing prompt dealing with curiosity. I gave the students four quotes about curiosity, quotes by Walt Disney, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt–people who knew a bit about the topic. The students were to choose one quote and write about what they believed it meant and their reaction to the ideas in the quote. (That’s the short explanation of the assignment, by the way.)
I read almost 40 papers discussing those quotes. The students’ reactions were nearly unanimous. Being curious was dangerous. People who were curious were at great risk of getting hurt, getting shunned, getting punished. Several of the teen mothers and many of my students who bear a great deal of responsibility for younger siblings were graphic in their descriptions of how important it is to teach kids to stay out of things, not make messes, not bug people with questions. A few conceded that being curious could be helpful, but not generally.
These are kids who want to succeed at college, kids with dreams of being lawyers and engineers, doctors and veterinarians. These are kids whose home lives offer little support for those dreams–and with little understanding of the difference between a dream and a goal. Their parents care, but have themselves come from a culture that penalizes curiosity. They limit themselves to what they are told to learn, told to think about–in the manner and context that they are told to, of course.
Current educational rhetoric blames teachers for all the ills of student achievements–and I will admit with no reservations that improvements in teaching are possible and needed–but when students have been taught even before they reach their first formal classroom that being curious is bad, student’s are only motivated to do the basic amount required for whatever grade they (or their parents or coach) deem acceptable. Students who are curious are a prime component in creating “excellent” schools and “effective” teachers.
I talked about Curious George with some of the students. A few remembered those stories–mainly from the short cartoons that sometimes show on PBS. Without exception, they agreed George was very bad and needed beat so he’d learn.
….and with that, I lost the curiosity that lead me to discussing the topic with them. There was nothing left to say.