Human Curiosity

How it Became the Primal Force to Create and Drive the Modern World1


Daniel Greenberg




            I’d like to start by telling you how I got to this subject, because this helps understand how I got to the conclusions I drew.  It all began in a history seminar.  We were discussing the Industrial Revolution which, as is well known, basically started in the latter half of the eighteenth century.  As we were talking about it, I began to ponder the question: Why did it happen in the late 18th century?  Why didn’t it happen a lot earlier?  After all, the components of the Industrial Revolution had been in place since ancient times.  For example, the theory of mechanical machines was something that had been thoroughly elaborated in ancient physics.  People knew how to multiply effort.  Also, there exists an ancient Greek drawing of a rudimentary steam turbine engine from which it is clear that the principles behind such a device were quite well known.  Furthermore, there were factories in the Roman empire where people produced large quantities of goods for distribution and sale.  All this made me wonder why it took until the 18th century for the Industrial Revolution to get launched.  Clearly one needed more than technology, which is widely considered the primary essential factor that drove the Industrial Revolution.  The question was: what was that “more”?  When I finally realized what the answer was, I came up with a much deeper understanding of the driving forces behind productivity and behind economic activity in general. 

            So let me take you back to my initial probings on the subject.  The basic spur to making anything, from the earliest time in human history, is to satisfy the physical needs for survival.  We don’t think about this much because we in the developed world are way beyond the survival mode of existence, but we all know that the three basic physical needs are food, clothing and shelter.  For most of human history, for the overwhelming majority of people, meeting these three basic needs even minimally was a lifetime project that absorbed all of their energy.  Indeed, the prehistoric archeological record reveals a wealth of human ingenuity focused on creating the means of satisfying these three basic needs, and on competition over meeting those needs, mostly in the form of war.

            Let’s just look at some examples of how far the ancients got with their technology when it was focused specifically just on those three needs.  We know that they were tremendously successful in finding ways to enhance food production.  I remember how amazed I was when I first learned about the incredible irrigation projects that were built all over the ancient world.  In the Mesopotamian Valley, currently known as Iraq, there were huge irrigation projects spanning the entire country.  In Egypt, the waters of the Nile were spread through ingenious systems of pumps and water wheels and canals that were carefully maintained to provide water to large tracts of land.  There is the so-called “hydraulic civilization”, which is prehistoric and which spanned southeast Asia, Indonesia and even came up to the Arabian Peninsula.  Its name derives from the fact that we have virtually no other evidence of its existence except for enormous waterworks that were created for irrigation – dams, reservoirs, and pipelines that were built out of stone, without mortar, and that were fitted so perfectly that they were leakproof.

            We know that the ancients showed tremendous ingenuity in making clothing.  People learned how to tan leather.  I don’t know how many of you have ever tanned leather, but let me assure you it’s quite a process.  Cleaning the skins and devising the means to make them last – I often ponder how anybody ever thought that up.  Or how people invented yarn for weaving.  I could look at a sheep from now until doomsday and it would never occur to me to do the things you have to do to make yarn.  Or linen: taking a particular grass, soaking it in a river forever, and then pulling it out and processing it.

            I don’t have to elaborate on how technologically advanced the ancients were in creating the tools of war.  In that connection, they developed metallurgy to a high art without really knowing very much about what we today

consider the basic chemistry of metallurgy.2  Perhaps the most interesting focus for a lot of creative ingenuity in pre-modern times was in that key domain for survival, religion, because above all people thought from the very earliest times that in order to maintain their survival they had to have the blessings of the cosmic powers that ruled the earth.  So they put a tremendous amount of effort into trying to make sure that they were on the right side of those cosmic powers.

            The point I’m trying to make is that pre-modern times achieved an immensely sophisticated technological state in all of these areas that are directly connected with survival – but basically only up to the point where survival was necessary.  One never really had to go beyond that.  There was no need to tinker with success if you could manage to feed your population so they didn’t starve, if you could manage to have them clothed enough so they didn’t freeze to death, and if you could manage to have them housed enough so that they didn’t die from exposure.  Life was precarious anyway, and if you lived to the grand old age of thirty or forty, you were really doing well.

            But there is a key additional factor that enters and muddies the waters.  That factor was first noted explicitly by Aristotle, who starts his central book – the book on which all of his thinking is based, his Metaphysics – with the remarkable statement that “human beings are naturally curious.”  Now, that is a really odd statement to make because curiosity is really counter-intuitive.  Curiosity is activity without a predetermined purpose.  Or, to put it in a different way: curiosity says, “If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway.”  It’s totally bizarre.  It means that people explore the unknown by virtue of the fact that they are human.  This is something that Aristotle claimed to recognize as a universal human trait.  He understood that it meant looking for new experiences, searching for the unknown; and of course when you’re searching for the unknown it means taking risks.  There’s a lot of talk nowadays about how teenagers are risk-takers, because we look around us and see teenagers doing that, but what Aristotle says is that all human beings are risk-takers, not just teenagers.  And they’re doing it all the time for no other reason than that they’re human.

            The other thing Aristotle said which was key to understanding what happens later is that the opportunity for curiosity to function freely and to be indulged in depends on the availability of leisure; and because for Aristotle “culture” meant all human activity that was over and above the basic bare bones of survival, what he was saying was that for people to create culture, they have to have leisure.  Since in his day almost nobody had time to spare, the availability of leisure was very limited.

            Summarizing: leisure and curiosity and culture were three factors that Aristotle saw as being intimately linked.  That immediately opens a window into the lives of the rich and famous in the ancient world and the middle ages.  Throughout that time, there existed a small group of people who were especially well-endowed with wealth.  This elite had the power and ability to be able to have leisure and be supported by the rest of the population.  And they’re the ones who created culture, all of it!  It’s quite a list of accomplishments, produced by a very thin veneer of society.  Just think about it.  They created art.  I’m not talking about the fact that even busy people every now and then can scribble on walls; I’m talking about really sophisticated art.  Great edifices.  Great murals.  Great mosaics.  All sponsored by people whose sole interest was to have something beautiful to look at, something really delightful.  People who were never satisfied.  No pharaoh ever said, “Well, there are a lot of nice pyramids out there with all kinds of pretty stuff; I don’t need to build another one.”  Pharaohs built not just because they too wanted a place in history, but because they wanted something new, something different.  They wanted their workmen to make something more interesting, something awe-inspiring.

            They created literature.  It’s hard to think of anything that is more a “waste of time” than literature.  Especially in ancient times, where you had to scribble everything out longhand and almost nobody could read.  Imagine a person who was moved in ancient times to write a play.  Who did he write the play for?  Who’s going to read it?  How lucky we are that any of them survived because there were only a handful of manuscripts of each one!  In fact, most of what was written in ancient times didn’t survive.  The great repertory of ancient literature – the library of Alexandria – went up in flames in the 8th century. With that, most of the writing of the ancient world disappeared.

            They had entertainment.  Not only theater, but games.  They had fun, they had parties.  If you have read the “Symposium” by Plato, which is nothing other than the story of a really wild drunken party featuring Socrates and his buddies, you’ll get an idea of how the elite caroused.  Cuisine.  We have cookbooks from ancient times, for the elite.  Do you think the average person looked at a cookbook?  Finally, the elite were the ones who engaged in science and philosophy,  who went to little academies and listened to the masters speak.  Unfortunately, the only extensive surviving record we have of this is Plato’s Dialogues, which is a terrible shame because we know these academies existed all over the place.3  Plato’s Dialogues provide a wonderful picture of these small knots of people who had lots of time on their hands, who obviously were very wealthy, and who chatted about all the important philosophical questions that we still talk about today.

            I have to tell you about just one such question, because it has to do with curiosity, and it shows you how bold Aristotle was when he talked about curiosity.  There’s a dialogue of Plato’s in which Socrates asks the question, “How can you ever look for anything new?” – which is the essence of curiosity.  The problem, as he saw it, was that if it’s new, you don’t know that it’s there, so you can’t look for it; and if you’re looking for it, then it’s not new, because you know it’s there.  He tangles himself in his quest for an answer page after page, until he comes up with the only answer he could figure out, which is: you can’t ever seek something new; rather, everybody is born with all the knowledge of everything within him, but they forget it at birth.  Thereafter, all of the search for ostensibly new things involves trying to recollect what we once knew.

            Aristotle didn’t buy that at all.  He was much more practical.  He said, in effect, that people by nature look for new things all the time.  They have no idea what they’re looking for; they’re just looking, pretty much at random.

            One thing Aristotle missed that is a major contributor to cultural development is communication.  Communication pushes the boundaries of what you can explore.  You don’t have to reinvent the wheel if you can communicate with people and find out what they’ve already found out.  So a tremendously important piece of the curiosity factor in human development is being able not just to grope around the world on your own, but to engage in some kind of exchange with other people, to call upon the collective experience of the group, in order to learn more about where you’re headed.  Remember, virtually all communication in early times was oral.  People developed the talent for memorizing huge quantities of information.  In fact, much of the literature that has survived from the ancient world was transmitted from one generation to another by memorization before it was committed to writing.  There were professionals who specialized in this.  Then writing came into play, and made it easier.  Writing, as we all know, is one of the great cultural breakthroughs, even though not a lot of people wrote and not a lot of people could read, and everything had to be passed around hand-to-hand in manuscript form.  Still, if you compare the situation before writing and after writing, you realize that writing made possible the availability of a lot more base-line knowledge from which curiosity could take off and advance into new territories instead of starting from scratch. 

            Let’s summarize the human condition in pre-modern times.  Briefly, the overwhelming majority of people struggled for existence.  They were satisfied if they could meet their basic needs.  They didn’t have time or energy to deal with the broader culture. There was a small elite that had the leisure to create and transmit culture from generation to generation.  The rate of cultural development was limited by the small number of people who belonged to the elite; by barriers to communication, due to the lack of mobility which made face-to-face contact between people who lived far apart rare; and by the difficulty of diffusing information through the written word.  But I want to add a key point: the curiosity-driven culture of the elite was a consumer-driven culture.  It was the elite that demanded new experiences, and led to the creation of all of the cultural treasures that we now treasure so much.  They wanted novelty, innovation.  They were never satisfied with what they had.  They were never satisfied with what existed.  They always wanted more.  They always wanted prettier.  They always wanted variety.  And they created all that.  We can see some of the results in the museums we go to today, where we can enjoy the products of this ancient, elite, consumer-driven culture.




            Now we can return to our original question: what about the Industrial Revolution?  How did it come about, and how is it related to all the groundwork I’ve been laying?  The tie-in occurs in what I like to think of as history’s first “big bang” – the explosive early modern era.  The time between the 15th and 18th centuries is a really tiny span of time historically, just three centuries compared to the hundreds of thousands of years that human beings existed, the tens of thousands of years that urban civilizations existed, and the thousands of years that writing existed.  During these 300 years there was a series of upheavals that occurred particularly in the Western world.  Each one was largely accidental, and their concurrence was equally accidental.  All in all, they constituted a set of historical coincidences of staggering proportions, which led to unintended and entirely unanticipated consequences.  We’re all aware of them individually, but it’s only when you put them together against the background that I’ve just outlined that you get a sense of the explosive impact they had on Western culture.  I will discuss them no particular order,  because they didn’t take place in any special order.

            The invention of movable type printing.  That was basically invented as a way to save on money for scribes.  Scribes were expensive, they got sick, they were a bother to deal with.  Gutenberg figured out a way to save on scribal time by assembling movable type and making replications of it.  At the time, no one realized the incredible fallout that would follow from that little invention.  I don’t know how many of you ever saw early printing presses.  They were incredibly difficult to operate.  The letters had to be individually carved out of wood or cast out of metal.  Then they had to be set line by line, after which they had to be laid out on a page and held together firmly.  Then somebody came over with a huge ink roller and rolled it along the top of the type, after which a huge sheet of paper was laid on top and pressed against the type.  Have you seen pictures of presses?  There’s a large screw with a big block of wood on its end.  As you lower the screw, the wood gets lowered onto the paper, then it is raised, the paper extracted and hung up to dry, and the process is repeated for each sheet.  The point I’m trying to make is this: as tedious as this process is, it still enables you to replicate hundreds of times in a day.  Can you imagine how long it took to write that sheet longhand – if you could find a scribe?  And how expensive it was?  All of a sudden, literacy becomes something worthwhile.  It didn’t make any sense to read before.  What was the point of reading?  There were hardly any books.  Now there’s something to read.  Human beings are naturally curious.  They thirst for new information.  The availability of books fosters independent research – and thinking – for everybody who could lay their hands on a book and mull over its contents.  It was worth pursuing even if they only had a few minutes of spare time, because books became relatively cheap and plentiful now.

            Printing, books, and literacy constituted a time bomb for religion.  The first book ever printed was the Bible.  Virtually nobody ever actually read the Bible.  How did people find out what was in the Bible?  The preacher told them, and the preacher in turn was told by his teacher in the seminary.  The preacher probably never read the Bible either.  Now all of a sudden Gutenberg printed Bibles and anybody could read them.  The result: many people were motivated to learn how to read, and when they did they often discovered that it didn’t jibe with what they had been told.  Before you could turn around, 1500 years of Roman Catholic monopoly on religion in Europe was shot to smithereens, and it was never restored.  All because of human curiosity, all because people wanted to know what was actually in that holy book.  Did they have to read the Bible?  After all, life was rolling along as it had for centuries.  The preacher told them what to do, how to go to heaven, what would get them sent to hell, and all that important stuff.  Life had gone on that way for 1500 years – what was the problem?  And now, all of a sudden, they had an opportunity to see for themselves.  Why did they bother to read?  It just created problems for them.  It was risky to read.  They did it anyway. 

            Let’s look at another event: the European discovery of the New World.  Now if there was ever an accident, that was it.  The story behind this is fascinating.  We all know that Columbus went to open a trade route to China.  No problem; the earth is round.  Everybody intelligent knew the earth was round.  All this business about the earth being considered flat is a fairy tale.  Aristotle clearly explains that the earth is a sphere, and that knowledge was part and parcel of ancient science.  In fact, the ancient Greek scientist Eratosthenes measured the diameter of the earth and got it pretty right.  The result showed that the earth was a huge sphere – too big to navigate sailing West from Europe.  Columbus, however, thought the radius of the globe was much smaller than what Eratosthenes had determined.  He had reasons to think so, which Thor Heyerdahl outlined in a brilliant tour de force4.

            Columbus also had good reason to seek a route to the Far East by sailing West.  You see, European trade with the Far East had been monopolized by the Italians for centuries.  The Italians, just like the Romans in ancient times, controlled the Mediterranean, so they controlled the flow of goods from the Far East via Asia and the Near East.  To be sure, the trade was directed at the wealthy elite, but the demand was considerable, which made the Portuguese want to get a piece of the action.  So the Portuguese figured that since they can’t go through the Mediterranean, they might be able to sail around Africa.  After many brave journeys, they made their way around the Cape of Good Hope and they found themselves in India, and hence in possession of a good chunk of the Far Eastern trade. This, in turn, left the poor Spanish king in the dust.  They couldn’t go around Africa, because that would precipitate a war with Portugal, and they couldn’t go through the Mediterranean, because the Italians controlled that route.  So here comes this eccentric Italian navigator, Columbus, who says to the Spanish court, “I’ll get you into the Chinese trade.  We’ll go due West.”  And he made his case and got the necessary funds.  So in effect it was an accident of history that the Spanish were forced to seek a different route if they had any hope of reaching the Far East by avoiding the Italian and Portuguese monopolies.

            They didn’t find China; they found the New World instead.  The irony is that in no time flat, it became clear that they had found something even better than China.  They found a bunch of people in the New World who had amassed gold and silver.  Talk about accidents of history!  And what does a good, healthy European do when he sees somebody with gold and silver?  He takes it.  So, they took the gold and silver – shiploads and shiploads of it.

            Here once again we encounter another accident of history.  Did you ever stop to think of why anybody gives a damn about gold or silver?  Actually the Native Americans who mined it didn’t use it as money.  For them it was something decorative.  In the beginning, when Columbus met them on his first journeys, they wanted his decorative stuff.  As a kid I was taught that the Europeans initially conned the natives by giving them beads for gold, and our teacher would say, “That’s a terrible thing.  They really took the natives for a ride.”  But that wasn’t the way that the Native Americans saw it.  It’s another example of human curiosity at work.  They had lots of gold, but look at these beautiful beads!  Take our gold, give us some beads in exchange.  The point is that its’s another accident of history that gold and silver are Europeans’ mediums of exchange.  What happens as a result of all this?  Europe is flooded with money, and there is a tremendous increase in the leisure class.  That’s what we’ve been talking about all along.  Leisure suddenly becomes available to an extent that it never, ever had been before.  It’s as if everybody won the lottery!  Money just flows in.  It enriches the nobility, and creates a non-noble elite as well, later called the “middle class” or the “upper class.”  The elite want to indulge their curiosity.  They want the kind of pretty clothes that the king has, because that looks really nice.  So they hire a tradesman to make clothes, and now he’s got a pile of gold, which he in turn wants to use.  This is the “multiplication factor” economists talk about, and with its help, within a hundred or so years, what you get is a tremendously rich Western Europe, by accident – totally by accident.  That’s factor number two. 

            Factor number three that happens at the same time: the discovery of the cosmos.  You might think that people knew it was out there; they weren’t blind.  But up until the 16th century, people had common sense.  Common sense dictates that when you look up at the sky, you know that you’re sitting here on solid ground and the heavens are rotating around you with unperturbed regularity.  The sensible thing to conclude is that the heavenly bodies, which rotate in unison, are stuck on some sort of rotating celestial sphere.  Aristotle had scientific theories about it, religions had religious explanations for it.  The most important conclusion about heavenly matter was that it wasn’t like anything on earth.  Earthly matter falls; if the stuff of which the heavens are made was anything like the earth, it would have all fallen down a long time ago and there wouldn’t be anything left up there.

            Now, optical lenses were common from the Middle Ages on.  They were sold in markets; in fact, eyeglasses were sold all over Europe just like we sell them in drug stores.  At some point, people playing around with lenses put a couple of them together, and figured out how to turn them into a telescope.  Galileo was the first person to become famous for using one, because he made a big fuss about what he saw when he looked at the moon.  He announced to the world that he could distinguish rivers, lakes, hills and valleys, just like the earth!  And Mars – Mars has canals!  People thought he was totally crazy.  After all, if the moon was like the earth, it would have fallen down a long time ago.  Anyway, how can anyone trust a telescope?  Science is based on hard knowledge.  The first thing you notice about a lens is that it distorts.  A lens is a distortion machine.  Here’s this crazy fellow Galileo putting two distortion machines together, looking at the moon, and saying, “I see hills and valleys.”

            Give the Catholic Church credit for saying he was a nut.  In context of their time, they had it right.  But in a very short length of time lots of other people were reaching the same conclusion, and this is tremendously significant from the point of view of human aspirations.  There is a qualitative difference when you feel that you can reach out to a cosmos that is identical in nature to our own planet, and that there is an endless variety of worlds to study and discover out there.  Suddenly, the human spirit soars.  You see it in the literature of the time.  Writers are drunk with excitement about experiencing the universe.

            The fourth thing that happened then – and this is related to the others although it doesn’t follow from the others – was that organizations were created to foster creativity and promote the creation of culture: clubs, societies, salons, places where people got together over a meal or for an evening.  Conversations were recorded and circulated to friends.  Suddenly – I say “suddenly” because we’re talking about a span of less than a hundred years, a blink of an eye in history – all kinds of societies were set up all over Europe: scientific societies, artistic societies, musical societies, cultural societies, salons, for purposes of collaboration and dissemination. That has a tremendous feedback effect; the more people do it, the more people want it.  It becomes a buzz.

            Finally, we have the invention of the financial infrastructure for modern trade, something absolutely essential for what happens in the Industrial Revolution.  We can be curious, we can be inventive, but we aren’t going to get anywhere if we can’t do something with what he have created.  That poses a problem: how do you conduct trade?  If you start thinking about the basic things you need to create an environment in which people can produce in abundance, then you realize that there’s a whole bunch of things we take for granted that didn’t exist until just about that period of time; for example, the idea of a corporation.  What an ingenious idea!  What a tremendous boon to creativity!  It enables you to create a  persona that is not a person at all, that can take risks, raise and lose money, and never put you in debtor’s prison (which was a highly populated place in those days).  And reliable banks – or at least banks that are semi-reliable.  Just the concept of a bank is impressive.  We give somebody our money to hold.  What’s to keep them from running off?  How do you create an institution that keeps that money relatively safe and yet enables the banker to lend it to other people so that they can create other institutions?

            These are very pedestrian things I’m talking about, but every one of them had to be in place in order to have the infrastructure to support increased production.  The industrial revolution is not about millions of people in cottage industries sitting and knitting at home and selling sweaters.  It’s about big companies producing large amounts of things, and you needed those infrastructures to do it.

            One other thing about infrastructure:  a stable system of laws and a fair judicial system to enforce them is extremely important for stable economic activity.  If you cannot have clear rules of the game and the ability to enforce agreements, you won’t have a thriving economy.  Indeed, that is considered one of the main factors holding back large parts of the world today from reaching their full potential for prosperity.

            I’ve listed five different major areas in which things happened during a relatively short stretch of time.  In light of these, it becomes a little clearer why the industrial revolution happened when it did.  You get a growing middle class, and with it a tremendous expansion of demand for innovation and exciting new experiences.  People all over want stuff.  That means they want lots of stuff produced and they want it produced fast and they want it produced in variety.  That kind of demand was an open invitation to people to produce, to try to satisfy that need.  Historically, there was never that level of demand before because you never had that big a leisure class thirsting for new experiences.  Also there’s an incessant demand for improvement in all kinds of communication, which is another hallmark of the industrial revolution.  Railroads, shipping, telegraph, all are outcomes of people’s demands to get hold of products, to know what they are and where they’re located, to be able to send them anywhere, to be able to market them, to produce them, to ship them.  This explosive growth of trade is the heart of the industrial revolution.




            Let me move on briefly to the second “big bang”of history – the Information Age.  The invention of computers led to staggering growth in a number of specific areas with which we are all familiar.  I just want to review them rather quickly. 


            First of all, the information revolution led to the ability to produce in much larger quantities and with much higher quality.  We’re able now to control production in a way that couldn’t even be dreamt of fifty years ago.  The information revolution has enabled us to micro-manage production so that we can satisfy individualized demand.  That’s really important when you have a leisure class that is looking for new experiences, because the more people look for new experiences, the less they want to duplicate the experience that other people have.  They not only want more clothes, they want more and different clothes.  And they don’t want exactly the same cars; everyone wants their own unique thing.  With every passing year, the ability to micro-manage production has increased demand because the more variety you’re able to introduce, the more people want of variety – because people are curious.

            Today, you’re able to disseminate information to a huge pool of recipients.  You can put stuff out there and everybody can access it.  Earlier, writing had made it possible not to have to reinvent the wheel, because people could share experiences.  Now, you can pinpoint the target audience with whom you wish to share experiences.  You can find the handful of people in the world who care about the stuff you care about.  In a short time you can unearth them, you can talk to them, you can exchange information with them.  The result is a potential for an unending flow of creativity.

            All of these factors in the Information Age give a tremendous boost to curiosity, which in turn makes everybody have more leisure and enables them to be more creative.  There is an enormous upward spiral of demand driven by leisure5 and curiosity.  In this sense, the Information Age really turns out to be an extension of the Industrial Age.  The same kinds of things are happening from a socioeconomic point of view that happened in the Industrial Age, except they’re happening on a much bigger scale because now all the things we could do in the Industrial Age  we can now do that much better, that much more quickly, and with that much more variety.

            I cannot emphasize enough that what’s involved is curiosity driving human beings as consumers – the very thing that so many people decry.  The consumer in people is not a person who for some base reason is looking to accumulate material things.  It’s a person who is looking to generate new, exciting experiences.  That’s human nature.  You cannot stop it.  It has only peripherally to do with money, or the accumulation of goods, or showing off.  The key factor is: “I want something new and exciting.  I want better video games.  I want better TVs.  I want better movies.  I want lots of different kinds of movies.  I want to create my own movies.  I want to create my own animation.  I want to be able to make my own music.  I want to put together my own CDs.”  A desire for new experiences and creative activity that is driven by curiosity.

            Because Western culture, as I’ve now described it, is so tied into this fundamental trait of human nature that Aristotle first described – curiosity – it has not only been successful, but it has become a source of emulation for other cultures over and over again that come into contact with it.  That should come as no surprise.  It has nothing to do with natives in the middle of the Amazon abandoning their splendid culture in order to follow the base influence of American rock music.  It has to do with the members of these other cultures suddenly discovering that there’s a whole lot of exciting stuff out there that they have never experienced, and that they want to know.  Any culture that tries to block this process by setting up barriers and walls is destined to fight a losing battle.

            The implication of all this for education is clear.  You want children to grow up in an environment in which they can have their native curiosity unleashed.  That’s what the Information Age is about.  Kids who are good at following their curiosity are ready to step into the modern world and lead a satisfactory life.  It’s inconceivable that anybody with his head screwed on right would take kids today and put them in an environment which says: “Don’t ask questions.”

            That leads to the final thing I want to say.  In general, “institutions of learning”, so to speak, are devoted to preserving and transmitting the culture that exists.  Their job is to take what’s known and to make sure it doesn’t get lost.  Academicians are always worried that if they don’t do this, the culture will get lost.  If we don’t teach kids Shakespeare, they’re not going to read him and he will be lost; and Shakespeare, they are quite sure, is central to our culture.  In general, if we don’t teach A, B, C and D, they feel we will have lost the ability to maintain our culture.  Within that view is embedded a semi-static view of culture that is perfectly suitable to most of history, up to modern times.  As long as culture didn’t change very fast, it was adequate to know what exists.  But in the era of rapid change that began several hundred years ago and is now moving at full throttle, there is no such thing as “a culture” to be transmitted.  The culture is not a stable entity.  It’s an open-ended search by all of humanity into whole new areas that have never been touched before.  What they are transmitting in their academies is a corpse.  Now, if pieces of that corpse are worth dissecting and maintaining in some kind of a laboratory, so be it.  There will always be people who are interested in pathology.  It’s a great subject.  “Let’s dissect the corpse.  What made it tick?”  But I wouldn’t make it an obligatory subject for everyone!

            Let’s step back for a minute and think about this issue. There was tons of culture in the ancient world: poems, plays, laws, religious tracts, philosophy, in Babylonia, Assyria, Persia, the Hittite Kingdom, Egypt, and elsewhere.  These were all advanced cultures.  Where are they?  Why aren’t they here?  The thing is that the grand sweep of history enables the human race to filter out the things that they seek to perpetuate – not because somebody has made them do it.  There’s lots in our culture that I’m sure is worthy of survival but I don’t know what it is.  I’m not the person who decides.  Time, and the culture itself, decide.  If enough people like Shakespeare, they’re going to read Shakespeare.  If enough people don’t like Shakespeare, we can shove it down their throats from now until doomsday – a hundred years from now nobody is going to read it, just like we don’t read the Egyptian Shakespeare (and don’t even know if he existed).  We have to accept this.  Over time, what different people in the leisure classes – who have the time to deal with culture –  decide is worth keeping is what survives.  All it takes is a few devotees to guarantee survival. The point is that as long as people are interested in something, they’ll keep it alive.  Otherwise, it will die.

            I leave you with the thought that Aristotle had it right: human curiosity triumphs first, last, and always.  Nothing can stop it.  We’re lucky to be living in an era when its free exercise benefits both the individual and society as never before.


1.  This article is based on a talk presented at the school in March 2003.

2. Let’s put it this way: we can read some ancient text about metallurgy and chuckle about it because they had it so wrong.  I can imagine what people are going to think a thousand years from now when they read our “modern” chemistry texts.

3.  Some scholars think that most of Aristotle’s works are lecture notes taken by Aristotle’s students in his Academy.  Whether or not this is true, they lack the feel of direct personal contact that one has in Plato’s works.

4.  “Columbus and the Vikings,” Chapter 5 in  Early Man and the Ocean: A Search for the Beginnings of Navigation and Seaborne Civilizations (Vintage Books; New York, 1980), p.127.

5.  It’s important to keep in mind that Aristotle’s definition of leisure is whatever time is left over after that devoted to basic survival.  We need water to drink, food to eat, one set of clothes, and some shelter.  When I first started working at Barnard College there was a young philosopher, scion of a very wealthy family, who had completely renounced his inheritance, and lived secretly in a room at the college.  He had precious few clothes and he ate potatoes and onions that he boiled on a little gas stove in the room.  That’s all he ate.  (Actually, it’s amazing he never got caught, because I could smell it the minute I walked into the building in the morning.)  He stayed for a year, happily writing his papers and books; and he subsisted on $1,000 a year.  My point isn’t that we should all be happy with $1,000 a year and a diet of potatoes and onions, but that we should recognize that the things that we feel today are not “extras” but are “really” the necessities of life are necessities in the sense that they satisfy that need that we have that I’ve been talking about – that need to have a rich life. Indeed, the richness consists of all the myriad things that we feel are essential.

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