Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Global Conspiracy Against Curiosity

Whose cat died, that's what I want to know? The fuzzball must have belonged to an emperor or a prophet is all I can guess. Someone influential, in any case. Either that or the cat in question was a celebrity in its own right. Perhaps an Egyptian god? Never mind. The finer point of the question is this: why do we teach our children that "curiosity killed" said cat? Whose idea was it to label curiosity a danger?

In fact, "curiosity killed the cat" is hardly an ancient parable. According to our darling Wikipedia, the earliest printed version of the saying appears in the March 4, 1916, edition of the Washington Post. Before the 20th Century, the phrase appears in printed sources as "care killed the cat," first used by playwright Ben Jonson in 1598. "Care" comes from the Middle English "cearu," meaning caution, and one can imagine that the phrase existed in the oral tradition long before Jonson wrote it in his play.

Isn't it telling that our reactionary modern era has so modified and maligned this bit of folksy wisdom as to turn its meaning completely on end? Where once we warned our children against an excess of caution, we now proclaim the dangers of curiosity. I find this shocking; nay, preposterous. Every important human achievement has been the result of curiosity. The Five Ws and an H have given us the power of flight, sent us to the moon, to the ocean depths, have cured diseases, invented the microwave oven, and inspired every single great work of art and literature. Why then have we come to disparage the curious cat?

I can think of one possible answer, and I found a graphic today (by way of BoingBoing) that does a nice job of illustrating it:

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Is it any surprise that "curiosity killed the cat" first reared its ugly head in print at roughly the same period in history that saw the birth of Christian Fundamentalism in America? The problem of Modernity, with all its unpleasant whos, whats, wheres, whens, whys, and hows, was simply too much for the faithful to swallow. Curiosity needed to go away, so we killed the cat.

The unfortunate result of all this anti-curiosity animosity is that America has become the least curious nation of the industrialized world, a point exemplified by the man we've twice chosen to head the Executive Branch. George W. Bush approaches new problems with his own special brand of curiosity. He asks lots of questions, like "Who cares?" "What does it matter?" "Where can I tell you to shove it?" "When will you all just leave me alone?" "Why are you still bothering me?"and "How about you go #%&$ yourself?"

Is it any surprise our educational system is such a farce? We can throw all the money we want at the children we won't leave behind, but until we inspire curiosity in those children, we will continue to fail our educational mandates. Teaching curiosity is sort of like teaching a man to fish. A curious child will grow into an adult that never ceases to learn.

All of this is a way of reminding myself that I need to stay curious. I sometimes get bored with my graduate assignments. I ask who cares or what does it matter. Instead, I should be asking what I can learn from these assignments.

In honor of all our feline brethren, I leave you with another picture from Key West. I call it, "In the Footsteps of the Curious Kitty."

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1 comment:

  1. Do you really posit that religious fundamentalism in America found its beginning ca. 1916? I'd rethink that one.