Curiosity is a curious thing.
To believe popular culture, we’re a bit ambivalent about its value. Curiosity killed the cat, after all. And early 20th-century wit Dorothy Parker opined that “Four be the things I’d been better without: Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.”
But Victorian writer and critic John Ruskin called curiosity “a gift, a capacity of pleasure in knowing.” And teachers almost universally agree that curiosity motivates exploration and learning. The late Herbert A. Simon, Nobel laureate and professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote that “curiosity is the motor that interests children in science. It is also the principal motor that energizes and steers the education of professional scientists and the conduct of their subsequent scientific work.”
But where does curiosity come from? Is it innate and fixed? Or can an ambitious student acquire and cultivate a curious nature? And more to the point of education, can schools and universities such as the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering instill and hone the quality of curiosity?
We asked four science and engineering alumni about the importance of curiosity. Is it something we can acquire and grow? Does it really drive progress?
There was plenty of uncertainty and disagreement about the nature of curiosity and where it comes from. But everyone acknowledged curiosity is indispensable and that it is key to another highly valued trait—creativity.