Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Inquisitive vs. Acquisitive

If you are not in education, you may not be aware of this, but there is currently a growing lament in educational circles (and, for that matter, in economic circles!) regarding the fact that our population is becoming ever less and less scientifically literate (and thus ever less and less prepared to work in scientifically-oriented career fields).  How, they whine, can it be that the first nation to put human beings on the moon is falling ever further and further behind other nations in science and math?

The answer seems obvious to me, and for once at least, I really don’t think we can blame the educational system.  It may not be helping very much, but the root of the problem, I contend, starts far earlier and is far more pervasive than anything kids get or don’t get in school. 

The basic problem is this:  scientists are, first and foremost, CURIOUS.  They ask questions and rigorously and vigorously seek answers.  When I was in grad school, every kind of everyday situation was fodder for questions; a trip to the bathroom would result in contention about the best study design to determine the most popular stall choices; a fast food order would stimulate a spirited debate about the correct way to conduct a double-blind taste test to truly resolve the “Coke vs. Pepsi” debacle.  The only thing that can drive people to do the kinds of endless, mind-numbing work that must go on in a typical lab day in, day out, and yield relevant results and (most important!) original advances, is a pervasive and insatiable inquisitiveness.  To raise scientists, we must raise inquisitive children into insatiably curious adults.

Not only does our culture not actively encourage inquisitiveness, our most prevalent parenting practices (from what I observe in the families around me) actively CRUSH kids’ natural curiosity, at every turn.  Rather than directly engaging with our children, listening (REALLY listening!) to their questions, taking them seriously, and either answering them or (as they grow) helping them to learn how to go about finding the answers themselves, parents simply stuff electronic pacifiers in their children’s faces and go about whatever the parents feel like doing at the time, which most often seems to have absolutely no reference to any legitimate need of the child, other than the most basic, fundamental physical needs (and even then, as absorbed in their own electronic distracters as they are, they generally do not notice THOSE needs until they become more than obvious—the child stinks to high heaven or the child is actively crying, some kind of unmistakable signal that requires them to take a moment from their electro-addiction to make some kind of response and adjustment). 

By constantly directing the child’s attention to an electronic screen, the child is being scrupulously taught to passively accept whatever content is put before him.  Even if she is playing some kind of game and thus technically “actively” engaging with something, at best all they are doing is learning to “actively” engage with somebody else’s pre-programmed schema.  In no way does this encourage any kind of real engagement with other people or the actual world around them.  In no way does this prepare them to ask any kind of important question or seek any kind of relevant answer.  Even if it is your fondest dream for your child to grow up and design video games for a living, surely they could design far better, more original, games if they had familiarity with things OTHER than other people’s games, not to mention some in-depth knowledge of, you know, actual human interaction.

Instead of encouraging our children’s natural inquisitiveness, we give them stuff to shut them up.  (Of course, we do the same thing for ourselves.)  And at least one segment of the population should be perfectly happy with that—the guys at the top of the “food chain” that is selling us all the stuff to shut ourselves (our minds, our spirits, and even the true needs of our bodies) up.  We are teaching our children to respond to any apparent want or need with “stuff.”  Watch something, play something, eat something, buy something.  If you feel some kind of dissatisfaction with that, it’s not because you will NEVER find anything meaningful in STUFF (no, it couldn’t possibly be THAT!); it means you’re bored with the “stuff” you have, or you just don’t have enough “stuff,” or you don’t have the right kind of “stuff” that you really, truly need to make you happy, and so you need to go get some more “stuff.”  That ingrained, habitual, even obsessive, acquisitiveness is great for the people who collect most of the profits from big companies that sell all that “stuff.”  But other than them, the rest of us might do well to start making some inquiries of our own:

*  Who does it benefit, really, to have a culture based upon acquisitiveness and active quashing of inquisitiveness?

*  As the computer nerds say, GIGO:  if you’re not willing to actively engage with your children (with all the time and effort and personal resources required by such engagement)—if you are going to consistently teach them, from the time they are infants, to stare at a screen and take whatever stuff they can get, from you or whoever else--then how do you get to complain when they become a teenager who spends 60 hours a week playing games, racks up thousands in credit card debt, and never moves out of your house?

*  What might the world look like if the millions of teens who currently do just that, instead invested even HALF that much time considering challenges facing the world today and inquiring into ways to creatively solve those challenges? 

Put those in your heart and ponder them.