Headmaster's Thoughts: October 2022

A ball is thrown into a room. The baby looks at the room’s entrance, curious as to how the ball arrived. A dog jumps for the ball. The difference is curiosity, and we are discovering that even two-month-old babies have an inherent sense of the laws of physics. They look for reasons. A ball is bounced and stays suspended in the air; babies are puzzled and look for reasons for this suspension of the law of gravity. The dog leaps up to grab the ball, indifferent as to how it got there.

Curiosity is one of the great assets of our species. It drives advancement in almost every field of human endeavor. It is not unique to us. The mirror test was considered a mark of curious intelligence. While a baby slept, or while an animal was anesthetized, a mark was placed on its body which it could not see by looking at itself. In babies it was placed under the chin. When recovered from being unconscious, the subject (human or animal) was given a mirror. We, as humans, recognized the mirror image as ourselves and tried to rub the mark off, using the mirror image as the guide for where the mark was.  Remarkably few animals passed this test. In the bird family, only the magpie, the brightest crow of all, recognized itself in the test. The Asian elephant did, but the African elephant did not. Very few of the apes passed the test, but dolphins, otters, and sea lions did. The mirror test has been questioned because it assumes that sight is the instrument of curious intelligence, where, with other animals, smell or hearing might better represent their ability. Nonetheless, it does indicate that we are in the company of a rare group who can recognize themselves in the mirror, and are curious as to a mark that has been placed on our reflected image.
This is all a long way from education. But curiosity is what we have to encourage in every lesson at school. Fortunately, we are an inquisitive species. And if we encourage, as I hope we all do, the curious, we are encouraging our children to think about alternative views of the same problem. I stress in my Ethics class, that we should never take as granted the printed word. Rather we should challenge orthodoxy, and strive to find a better way. In fact, I ask the students to see curiosity as a pleasure: the pleasure of investigation and discovery. New ideas and conclusions are the result. The reverse is apathy, and an apathetic person has lost the joy of learning, the joy of life.
Socrates has the reputation of being the father of questioning. He must have been annoying, constantly asking the young students in his school questions, without giving answers. There is a famous painting of him having a pitcher of urine poured over his head by his wife Xanthippe, while he smiles through the experience. He supposed to have said, after the bedpan was emptied: “I always knew rain would follow thunder”. Funny, but probably maddening to Xanthippe who could not get him angry enough to have a decent row. I sympathize with her.
We, as teachers, do question students, but, where we can, we attempt to give an answer. Nothing would please us more if a student would give a good argument against our beliefs. Curious enquiry is the bedrock of the miracles of modern society. 
Too often, the orthodox approach is adopted without challenge. I have a mild condition of blepharitis, or redness around my eyes. Years ago, I travelled to Boston to a famous doctor who prescribed rubbing your eyelids with baby shampoo. When my eyes became redder, I stopped the “cure”. I mentioned this to my current eye doctor (who prescribed the modern treatment of 0.01% of hypochlorous acid) and he, ruefully, admitted that he too used to prescribe baby shampoo because that was the accepted procedure. At least he admitted that he stopped because it aggravated rather than cured the condition. I am glad that I was not around when blood-letting was invariably used as a cure. 
All of the above is something that I think should be the essence of a school, the encouragement of curiosity. If we can encourage and develop that quality, then I believe success is in the future of the child. Less this essay is too serious, let me end with a couple of silly jokes about curiosity. Silliness has its place, too.
When I was young, my parents bought a dog and a cat. The following morning, only the dog was alive. We called the dog Curiosity.
A man asks his doctor whether he has the results of the tests because he is dying of curiosity to know what they are. Unfortunately, replies the doctor, it is not just Curiosity.
Maybe I should start over.  
Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep School