Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser

Over at his New York Times blog, Stanley Fish does something I've never really seen before - he goes after curiosity as a character trait. The jumping off point is a speech given by the National Endowment for the Humanities at the University of Virginia recently that asked whether that institution's founder would have valued curiosity as part of the inalienable right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Fish isn't buying:

This sounds right, even patriotic, but there is another tradition in which, far from being the guarantor of a better future, curiosity is a vice and even a sin. Indeed, it has often been considered the original sin.
Oh, wait, I see where this is going. Curiosity means wanting to see behind the curtain when confronting the Wizard of Oz, perhaps to discover a mere mortal lurks behind if, indeed, anything does. In short, curiosity is anathema to dogma Sure enough, the anti-curiosity crusaders tend to be religious thinkers, although the same applies to political ideologues as well.

Fish's argument reminds be of a book I read during law school by Roger Shattuk called Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography. The book traces the history of the idea that there are certain things that man is just not meant to know. The inference of what this means for society is that some form of censorship is a good thing, as it keeps the unwashed masses from having to wrangle with this information. Curiosity, to return to Fish's piece, must be reigned in for the common good.

Even assuming the premise is accurate, here's the problem - who gets to decide what is and isn't fit for mass consumption? Some group of elites, I guess, but why should we assume they would exercise their authority in a truly benevolent way? Doesn't history show us that they would label information dangerous to their hold on power as "forbidden"? From that power, all other tyranny follows. That's why something like the First Amendment must be kept robust and allow all of us - the masses, the elites, whomever - to examine things for ourselves and come to our own conclusions.

On a much less grand scale, I can't imagine going through life without being curious about the world around you. No, the truth won't always make you happy, but it will set you free. Someone who isn't curious about the world is either unbelievably arrogant enough to think they know it all or they might as well be dead inside.

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