Self-reliance and Curiosity: A Joint Imperative
If you read the business press, watch television, or listen to the radio it is hard to escape the message that the labor markets of tomorrow will be shaped not by full-time employment but by the “gig economy.” In many labor market, this already is the case. For those who are able to fork over the cash necessary to attend university and post-graduate institutions, there is a growing recognition that outside of the STEM fields, full-time employment prospects will be spotty for professionals. Whether this job market prediction proves accurate or not it seems reasonable for students to make a form of Pascal’s wager: Bet on the worst, that is, uncertain, non-gainful employment shaping the new reality.
If you have children or are now of child-bearing/child-rearing age, it seems reasonable to consider what forms of preparation you can take to prepare your child/children for the working world. Perhaps the best solution is actually a joint imperative: teach self-reliance and nurture rigorous curiosity.
Self-reliance and curiosity are partners: a curious person does not have the luxury of waiting for others to satisfy their curiosity; if they want to know they have to go and find. The search for satisfactory answers also demands a persistent self-discipline, a type of grit which teaches the seeker to neither give up nor remain satisfied with conventional explanations. Curiosity is also deeply personal and is driven by the personal prerogative, a fact evident in matters as diverse as the search for truth in science, morality, faith, education, and politics. Curiosity is also a recognition of necessity: when a curious person discovers what they do not know they become better equipped to discover what others do not know either. This is how human knowledge is advanced. As Thomas Edison once said: ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’
When thinking about how to encourage curiosity in children what we are actually contemplating is how to move children toward asking questions that we as parents and educators cannot necessarily answer. When thinking about how to motivate children to become self-reliant we are training ourselves not to rush in to solve problems for them. While this might appear to be a disengaged form of parenting or neglectful form of teaching it is actually two steps towards a partnership with our children. Here an example will be useful.
The world-renowned linguist Professor Noam Chomsky was fortunate to have been raised in a home where his father was a renowned scholar of medieval Hebrew. When he was only twelve years old Chomsky read the proofs of his father’s book on Hebrew grammar. In this case, his father had prepared him for the task of proofreading and understanding a high-level work of scholarship by teaching his son Hebrew from an early age and encouraging his son’s budding curiosity in linguistics. Chomsky’s parents also decided that beginning at the age of two, their son would attend a progressive school in the city of Philadelphia which allowed their son to explore his intellectual curiosity in a responsive and accommodating environment. Young Chomsky was encouraged both at school and at home to read, think, question, and experiment. He lived in a home where intellectual topics were a part of daily conversation and it was assumed that his growing mind required ample opportunities to ask pertinent and pressing questions demanding the attention of adults. During the summer and over extended holidays, Chomsky was sent to New York to stay with relatives who were very involved in the Eastern European Jewish intellectual community and his visits including being a participant and observer of advanced intellectual discourse. As Chomsky and others have noted, this upbringing prepared him intellectually and personally to take full advantage of the educational and professional opportunities that became available to him when he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. Self-reliance, curiosity, and independence of mind were ingrained in the young man well before he matriculated.
Before we assume that because Noam Chomsky is an exceptional person the example I have provided is largely an unrealistic one, I would like to draw attention to what Chomsky and other educators have suggested which is that the habits of self-reliance and curiosity can be encouraged, taught, and modeled. The point is not that all students should expect to become world class intellectuals but rather that self-reliance and curiosity can prepare them to seize opportunities to advance their education and life plans. But this is not all. A self-reliant, curious young adult will also be better prepared to seek mentors and find opportunities for apprenticeship. Self-reliance and curiosity encourage poise, maturity, and patience all of which are valuable skills that create opportunities and open doors.
As parents, educators, and students we are all going to have to be creative in our response to what has been called “the Brave New World of Work.” Curiosity and the ability to be and to remain curious is and will be a requirement for personal success and long-term professional survival.
Note: You can also read the essay here: