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Curious Jews

by Rabbi Adin (Steinsaltz) Even-Yisrael

  

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For most people, the act of studying stops abruptly at the end of formal schooling, whether after elementary school, high school, or college.

It isn’t that they don’t learn anymore once their schooling is over.  They have lots of experiences, and hopefully they learn something from them.  If they live in a good-sized city, they may have all kinds of lectures to choose from, and perhaps they go and listen, and even go again, if the subject interests them.  But few adults sit down and study in a continuous, disciplined way.  They find no compelling need or motivation.

Curiosity is a characteristic of youth.  Other primates abandon curiosity relatively early in order to deal with the problems of daily living – finding food, rearing offspring – but the prolonged childhood of humans gives them the opportunity to spend more time cultivating their curiosity.

Many educational systems don’t understand this.  They try to make every subject of study “relevant,” and that is a big mistake.  Teachers, and sometimes parents, think that this enhances the desire and the inclination to learn, but they are actually destroying curiosity, which is what is most important.  The idea of being interested in irrelevant things – in things that have no immediate, and maybe even no remote, relevance to our existence – is part of our uniqueness as humans.

The prolonged childhood of humans gives them the opportunity to spend more time cultivating their curiosity
In the preface to his book on popular physics, Leopold Infeld describes the earliest experiments with electricity.  You can do them yourself.  You take a piece of glass and rub it with silk, and you get electricity.  Or, you take a piece of amber and rub it with flannel. You get electricity, this way, too, but it is a different kind:  One is positive, and one is negative.

Now, what would most people do if they had those things? They would take the piece of glass and use it as a paperweight.  They would take the amber and set it on a shelf as an ornament.  They would use the flannel to clean their shoes.  And they would use the silk to wipe their nose.

So how did we go from static electricity to computers – from the Greek philosopher Thales (the first to describe creating static electricity by rubbing glass with silk 2500 years ago) to Steve Jobs tinkering in his parents’ garage?   These are people who were curious.  They had a little time on their hands and they had some stuff to play with.  They played in order to satisfy their curiosity.  They tried this and that, and then they saw something interesting.

When a school tries to make everything relevant and utilitarian, it is helpful in one way, but it kills the basic notion of curiosity.  In some realms of knowledge, it is fine to ask what the good of something is, to see if it gives a practical answer to a practical problem.  But sometimes, I want to find out about what it is.  One might even say that it is the lack of continuous curiosity that slows human advancement. 


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