What to think about curiosity killing the cat?

“Curiosity kills the cat.” That doesn’t imply don’t be curious. What it implies is curiosity has consequences. It takes you out of safe areas.

What are the guidelines we need for being curious? It is not about Monday morning quarterbacking. That is, after some bad experience, a person says: “You should not have been so curious. Curiosity killed the cat.” That’s not insightful or helpful.  But what are the guidelines for how far and in what directions to take curiosity?

A possible start is: Be curious about possible consequences before simply trying something new. Indeed, never simply try something new, devil be damned. (The devil isn’t so easily damned. )

But that leads to a new question: how to explore the possible consequences? The first move might be to pause often and think. That can go a long way. A second option, a richer option, might be like the classroom of Vivian Paley, particularly the classroom she describes in her book The Girl with the Brown Crayon. Here she speaks of her kindergarteners being “passionate seekers of hidden identities and quickly respond[ing] to those who keep unraveling the endless possibilities.” Later in the book she speaks of needing “the intense preoccupation of a group of children and teachers inventing new worlds as they learn to know each other’s dreams.” A more abstract view of growth and development than Vivian Paley’s classroom of five and six-year-olds and teachers I have given in a previous post:

each of us… tr[ies] to impart order according to our sense of our self—our identity, aspirations or goals, and will to choose among goals and move towards them.  We achieve some goals and then have greater capacity, knowledge, skills, plans, and direction to keep moving and developing.  We also have setbacks and revise our goals.  Indeed, our self-directedness can be buffeted or even threatened by the order-imparting efforts of other people navigating their distributed complexities.  Yet relationships with others are a source of resources and support (material, emotional, etc.) from outside ourselves, which help shape how far and in what directions our movement and development happens.  Relationships are also a source of unplanned conjunctions or intersections that we draw from.  Such connections can help us to not simply continue along previous lines and, at the same time, to clarify our sense of directedness as individuals.

In short, like Vivian Paley , the picture of curiosity is one that is very social. This social picture is also given in Pat Humphries’ song “Swimming to the Other Side” (lyrics).  In that song, the curious are reminded to be concerned as much about other people as about ourselves. Or, as much about the world that everyone is in as the world of the individual self.

Whether it is while swimming to the other side or in Vivian Paley’s classroom, the picture involves the idea that “we know more than we are at first prepared to acknowledge.” This idea puts a spin on the issue of safe place. In the complex social worlds we make our work and lives in, we already have moved outside our safe places even when we appear to have taken up a secure position–There are holes already in any wall or levee that blocks curiosity, or is seen to block curiosity. This view also makes me wonder whether a person necessarily feels more complete—more coherent— when the knowledge that had not been acknowledged gets brought to the surface and into play.

Back to the issue of guidelines for venturing out of the safe place, for acknowledging what’s already not within a safe place: What I notice in Vivian Paley’s picture is a directionality about the curiosity, about the seeking of human identities. She as a teacher and the students that she describes are trying to make coherence of humans, trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together so that they understand their own identity and the identities of others. Paley describes them as passionate seekers of hidden identities. So they are bringing what is hidden into visibility.

That leads me to suggest another guideline for going outside of safe areas which would be to be prepared for the consequences when you do that. These are consequences that are going to be part of your own growth and development. Stephen Cope (The Great Work of Your Life) would say that in order to be prepared for consequences one needs to be following one’s dharma. The meaning of the Sanskrit word dharma include duty, law, truth, ethics and the socio-cosmic order. Knowing one’s dharma is not a simple task.

As a coda to this exploration, let me admit that I think that my personal dharma emphasizes digging down to find coherence, puzzling through, but on my own more than in the setting of Vivian Paley classroom. Have I fully accepted the consequences of that kind of curiosity? Stay tuned, to be continued…

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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