Wednesday, January 5, 2011

More Inquisitive, Less Acquisitive... or Else

Acquisitive or inquisitive?  The two are not antonyms, but if we consider these two adjectives as a sort of juxtaposition, we can open up some some very interesting lines of discussion.  Over the recent Christmas break (let’s face it, call it what you will, the break was originally decreed to celebrate that particular holiday) I was struck by how acquisitiveness seems always to be on the rise while inquisitiveness seems to wane.  Let’s be under no illusions, these two phenomena are related and neither is by happenstance.

Anyone working within the school system will tell you that teaching inquisitiveness is just “one of the things we do”, and rightly so.   I think we do quite a good job of encouraging students to explore, to inquire and in the long term, to follow a path in which they’re interested and passionate.   In other words, we try to teach kids to embrace and value inquisitiveness for purely intrinsic reasons.  But is this message getting through?  And which has a greater pull on our students, following a keen interest in music, history or literature, or getting the right math and science credits to allow entrance into commerce or engineering?  After all, that’s where society has deemed the most lucrative careers to lie.  This is not at all to say that math and science are not valuable and interesting areas of study unto themselves (I myself was a math and science teacher), but the “pull” toward math and science of the vast majority of the academically capable students is very real.  Any comparison of the number of students who sign up for science classes vs the number who study the humanities will show the disproportionality.

Of course there is plenty of opportunity to be inquisitive within the realm of the “hard sciences”.  Indeed, it’s a few centuries of true inquisition (not the ‘Spanish’ kind) that has led us to the high tech, comfortable and relatively healthy society in which we now live.  But therein also lies the problem, where we are as a society is not nearly as advanced or as beneficent as it could or should be. In fact (and here’s the rub) we continue to pour ever more resources, both human and material, into producing better, faster, cooler widgets (engineering) and then using some of the best minds around to create perceived needs by preying on insecurities (marketing) to sell these widgets.  The fact that our society as a whole is becoming ever more acquisitive is pretty much beyond question, and any who think the results of this to be relatively benign should watch this.  Many thinkers (e.g. Jane Jacobs, Gwynne Dyer, and Jared Diamond to name just three) have posited that we may well be on the verge of one or more environmental or societal ‘collapses’.  Yet as a society we seem almost willfully blind to some of these possible pending calamities.  The ‘advances’ that have given us our relatively luxuriant lifestyle are the same ones that may lead to our downfall.
But there are many powerful forces vested in keeping us producing and buying ever more.  Our current economic structure depends upon it.  But in order to keep this cycle of acquisitiveness moving, inquisitiveness into things like environmental impact, genuine need as opposed to simple desire, etc. etc. must be stifled.  So inquisitiveness is often actively discouraged to perpetuate acquisitiveness.

Our advancements in the realms of technology, marketing, and some would include media, have far outpaced our advancements in the things like ethics, morality and general “wisdom”.  We have many powerful tools and ideas that allow us to create things, but we lack the moral and political will to use these creative forces for the benefit and advancement of all.  Perhaps it’s part of human nature that short-term acquisitiveness plays a far more prominent role in our society than does long-term inquisitiveness.  After all, anthropologists have shown that as a species, our long-term planning skills are pretty weak.  Deep down we’re just slightly smarter and more self-aware than the next mammal who’s living a day-to-day existence.  We don’t naturally do “big picture” or “long-term” very well.
But in this respect we must start opposing the historical trend.  We’ve brought ourselves (and many other species on this planet) far enough down the current developmental path that any further ignorance of genuine big-picture, long-term and global thinking and action may have some pretty dire consequences.  In other words, a paradigm shift in how we think and act as a society is, arguably, a necessity.  Such shifts start with educators and what goes on within our educational institutions.  Using the idea of inquisition being far more important and beneficial than acquisition would be a great place to start.  But you already know that.