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“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.”                                                                                                                                                                                                          Linus Pauling

As I’ve prepared to assume the role of President and Chief Academic Officer at Cogswell, I have been asked by a number of people how I went from being a musician to being an advocate for interdisciplinary learning. Interestingly, I’ve never thought of myself as NOT being an advocate for interdisciplinarity. While much of what people saw of me in earlier years was related to my musical expression, what they didn’t see was how much of that musical expression was informed by my curiosity and passion for science, mathematics, art, literature, history, and philosophy. I didn’t want to just play the right notes at the right time, I needed to know how those notes interacted with each other acoustically, what the composer intended, and what was going on in the composer’s life and environment as the piece was being written. All of those elements were important for me to understand in order to shape my performance.

Like most young children, I was immensely curious about how things worked and why. My curiosity led me down numerous paths of exploration, experimentation, and discovery, some less hazardous than others. I absolutely refused to abide the “Curiosity killed the cat,” admonishments of the adults around me and focused on the “but satisfaction brought it back” rejoinder instead. Satisfying my curiosity became a driving force in my life, and I steadfastly refused to let it be “taught” out of me. Even as higher levels of education tried to force me onto narrower and narrower paths, I continued to explore areas of knowledge considered by many to be outside my specialization (hint: they were wrong). As an educator, I bring that same passionate curiosity and diversity of knowledge to my teaching. Even when I was teaching music courses, I not only included elements of technology, science, history, and art, but economics, and business as well. After all, it’s nearly impossible to be a musician without being an entrepreneur!

STEAMed about STEM

In recent years, our education system has focused more and more on specific silos of knowledge with a strong focus on so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) courses. Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, Languages, etc., are frequently relegated to the back-burner, if not removed altogether. While the origins of science classes were about asking and answering questions, too frequently, the content of current iterations of these classes is about memorizing and restating information. Even STEAM (insert Arts between Engineering and Mathematics) programs often treat the arts component as secondary to the “important” subjects. What so many of these programs fail to realize is that knowledge comes from asking questions—curiosity—not from memorizing already-known information. In other words, as Albert Einstein once put it, “Curiosity is more important than knowledge.” While there are still plenty of questions to be asked in the STEM fields, the Arts and Humanities are where we frequently encounter life’s most intriguing questions.

Image source: vecteezy.com

What about today’s employers? What do they want?

Much of the conventional wisdom being spread through schools across the country dictates that in order to get a great job, especially one in a technology-related field, you need a deep, deep dive into a singular subject area. While that may have been the case a few years ago, employers are beginning to discover that their best employees are often the ones with a much broader knowledge base. In a recent Washington Post article,  Cathy N. Davidson, author and education technology scholar, points to two recent studies on workplace success by tech giant Google that concluded the most important qualities of their successful employee teams were not so much core technical skills as people skills and the kind of curiosity that encourages interdisciplinary, critical thinking. That’s not to say technical skills aren’t important, they are. It’s just that technical skills are most effective when balanced with a curiosity that fosters a broader mindset.

So, as you work through your education, don’t focus solely on your chosen specialty. Let your curiosity run. Take classes outside your discipline. Explore new subjects and new opportunities. Plutarch, the great first-century Greek scholar and philosopher, wrote, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” Think of your education as not just an opportunity to gain knowledge, but as an inspiration for a curiosity that leads to life-long learning. As we begin a new year, I urge all of you to kindle and stoke the fire of your passions by asking the kinds of questions that have led to every great discovery:

What if…?
                     How does…?
                                              and (perhaps most importantly), Why…?

Notes:

For those curious about curiosity, I commend Ian Leslie’s excellent and immensely-readable book, Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, published by Basic Books and available through booksellers everywhere.

Cathy N. Davidson’s book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, was featured in an earlier Cogswell Perspectives Blog post.