Lack of Curiosity is Curious

By J. Peder Zane

Over dinner a few years ago, the novelist Lawrence Naumoff told a troubling story. He asked students in his introduction to creative writing course at UNC-Chapel Hill if they had read Jack Kerouac. Nobody raised their hand. Then he asked if anyone had ever heard of Jack Kerouac. More blank expressions.

Naumoff began describing the legend of the literary wild man. One student offered that he had a teacher who was just as crazy. Naumoff asked the professor’s name. The student said he didn’t know. Naumoff then asked this oblivious scholar, “Do you know my name?”

After a long pause, the young man replied, “No.”

“I guess I’ve always known that many students are just taking my course to get a requirement out of the way,” Naumoff said. “But it was disheartening to see that some couldn’t even go to the trouble of finding out the name of the person teaching the course.”

The floodgates were opened and the other UNC professors at the dinner began sharing their own dispiriting stories about the troubling state of curiosity on campus. Their experiences echoed the complaints voiced by many of my book reviewers who teach at some of the nation’s best schools.

All of them have noted that such ignorance isn’t new — students have always possessed far less knowldge than they should, or think they have. But in the past, ignorance tended to be a source of shame and motivation. Students were far more likely to be troubled by not-knowing, far more eager to fill such gaps by learning. As one of my reviewers, Stanley Trachtenberg, once said, “It’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t care about what they don’t know.”

This lack of curiosity is especially disturbing because it infects our broader culture. Unfortunately, it seems both inevitable and incurable.

In our increasingly complex world, the amount of information required to master any particular discipline — e.g. computers, life insurance, medicine — has expanded geometrically. We are forced to become specialists, people who know more and more about less and less.

Add to this two other factors: the mind-set that puts work at the center of American life and the deep fear spawned by the rise of globalization and other free market approaches that have turned job security into an anachronism. In this frightening new world, students do not turn to universities for mind expansion but vocational training. In the parlance of journalism, they want news they can use.

Upon graduation, they must devote ever more energy to mastering the floods of information that might help them keep their wobbly jobs. Crunched, they have little time to learn about far-flung subjects.

The narrowcasting of our lives is writ large in our culture. Faced with a near infinite range of knowledge, the Internet slices and dices it all into highly specialized niches that provide mountainous details about the slightest molehills. It is no wonder that the last mainstream outlet of general knowledge, the daily newspaper, is suffering declining readership. When people only care about what they care about, their desire to know something more, something new, evaporates like the morning dew.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. In comforting response to these exigencies, our culture gives us a pass, downplaying the importance of knowledge, culture, history and tradition. Not too long ago, students might have been embarrassed to admit they’d never heard of Jack Kerouac. Now they’re permitted to say “whatever.”

When was the last time you met anyone who was ashamed because they didn’t know something?

It hasn’t always been so. When my father, the son of Italian immigrants, was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, he aspired to be a man of learning. Forced to go to work instead of college, he read “the best books,” listened to “the best music,” learned which fork to use for his salad. He watched Fred Astaire puttin’ on his top hat and tyin’ up his white tie, and dreamed of entering that world of distinction.

That mind-set seems as dead as my beloved Dad. The notion of an aspirational culture, in which one endeavors to learn what is right, proper and important in order to make something more of himself, is past.

In fairness, the assault on high culture and tradition that has transpired since the 1960s has paid great dividends, bringing long overdue attention to marginalized voices.

Unfortunately, this new freedom has sucker punched the notion of the educated person who is esteemed not because of the size of his bank account or the extent of his fame but the depth of his knowledge. Instead of a mainstream reverence for those who produce or appreciate works that represent the summit of human achievement, we have a corporatized and commodified culture that hypes the latest trend, the next new thing.

A fundamental truth about people is that they are shaped by the world around them. In the here and now, get-the-job-done environment of modern America, the knowledge for knowledge’s sake ethos that is the foundation of a liberal arts education — and of a rich and satisfying life — has been shoved to the margins. Curiously, in a world where everything is worth knowing, nothing is.


  1. An excellent, and sad, essay. Knowledge is specialized to be commoditized-like a baseball pitcher or history teacher or brake specialist-leaving little time left over to learn. We must focus on results now, for the next pay period or the next fiscal quarter or this semester, or life. And more things demand our time. Even the process of making comments online requires us to give information which adds to time demands, and perhaps allows someone else (advertisers, for example) to commoditize our thoughts and comments. We find that there is too much to learn and it multiplies every moment, and so we give up, and become, collectively, lesser human beings.

  2. This piece has ranked among my favorite essays about the current state of contemporary American culture and young people’s worldviews, attitudes, and sensibilities ever since I first read circa 2005. For me it ranks up there with other modern classic essays in the same vein, e.g., Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Reading for Bored College Students,” and also with the best of the book-length analyses of the same trends, e.g., Morris Berman’s THE TWILIGHT OF AMERICAN CULTURE. There’s also not a little of Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451 in there.

    I will actually be using “Lack of Curiosity Is Curious” next week in one of my college classes (a developmental/remedial reading course) by requiring students to read it and then, without too much input or direction from me, asking them to make sense of it and respond to it. I have also shared it several times with fellow faculty members over the years. Thank you sincerely for your pithy and dead-on accurate analysis of the soul-draining grimness we’re caught up in, Mr. Zane.

  3. I think it is very different in Canada than in the USA. In Canada, people pride themselves on not being American, and large part of that is being educated and socially progressive.

  4. I am delighted to have so many thoughtful responses to my column. Thank you. Mr. Gill, I am particularly intrigued by your alignment of education and socially progressive thought. I can’t say have a clear answer on this but I find it interesting that we are much better people today – not just more tolerant, but more accepting of others – even as we seem to be less cultured , informed and curious. One thought is that education, at least in the US, seems to focus much more on social skills and socially progressive values of personal relations. My three daughters are in middle and high school and many of their reading assignments focus on marginalized or targeted groups, especially African-Americans and victims of the Holocaust. When I was in school we spent much more time studying the Presidency and English history than how we can get along with each other. So, to some extent, schools are doing a better job of producing good people than people who know things. This rising acceptance is especially interesting given all the studies that suggest that young people today are less empathetic and more self-absorbed than we were.

    One more layer to this question comes from the book I wrote with Professor Adrian Bejan of Duke University, “Design in Nature.” It details Adrian’s great discovery, the constructal law, which, briefly, states that all systems with the freedom to change evolve over time to facilitate greater and greater flow. River basins, for example, are flow systems for moving water from the plain to the river’s mouth. Over time, the raindrops that fell to the ground created the rivulets, brooks, streams and mighty channels, like the Mississippi and the Danube, that define the design of all the river basins that cover the globe.

    Society is a flow system for people and the things they make (including ideas). In terms of the economy it is easy to see how each century is marked by the greater movement of goods across the landscape – e.g. globalization. We have, over time, created better and better channels for moving more stuff, more easily.

    This same evolutionary direction is also clear in social mores: the history of humanity is the story of the steady destruction of barriers that limit the movement of people – e.g. the march of freedom across the globe. Over time we have created better and better channels to allow people to control their own destinies. There are hiccups along the way, but, taking the long view, change moves in this one direction. That is, the greater acceptance we see today is not just the result of decisions we have made but decisions we had to make because everything that moves – including people – has a natural tendency to create better flow access. It is not a matter of politics but of physics.

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