If there is one idea we need to be rid of it’s “natural curiosity”. Photo: Rich Grundy on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Why curiosity will rule the modern world

We ought to be doing everything we can to foster curiosity but we undervalue and misunderstand it.

Before the internet and before the printing press, knowledge was the preserve of the 1 per cent. Books were the super yachts of 17th-century kings. The advent of the printing press and, latterly, the worldwide web has broken this monopoly. Today, in a world where vast inequalities in access to information are finally being levelled, a new cognitive divide is emerging: between the curious and the incurious.

Twenty-first-century economies are rewarding those who have an unquenchable desire to discover, learn and accumulate a wide range of knowledge. It’s no longer just about who or what you know, but how much you want to know. The curious are more likely to stay in education for longer. A hungry mind isn’t the only trait you need to do well at school, but according to Sophie von Stumm of Goldsmiths, University of London, it is the best single predictor of achievement, allied as it is with the other two quantifiably important traits: intelligence and conscientiousness.

Across the developed world, the cost of university is rising, but the cost of not going to university is rising faster. In the UK, according to a report commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, workers with degrees earn 27 per cent more than those with only A-levels. To put it another way, not having a degree costs £210,000 over the course of a lifetime.

Once at university, students find that individual differences in their cognitive ability flatten out (you had to be reasonably smart to get there) and an inner drive to learn becomes even more important. Curiosity can make the difference between classes of degree, and that matters: workers with Firsts or Upper Seconds earn on average £80,000 more over a lifetime than those with 2:2s or lower.

Students entering the workplace need to stay curious, because the wages for routine intellectual work, even in professional industries such as accountancy and law, are falling. Technology is rapidly taking over tasks historically performed by human beings, and it’s no longer enough to be merely competent or smart: computers are both. But no computer can yet be said to be curious. As the technology writer Kevin Kelly puts it, “Machines are for answers; humans are for questions.”

Industries are growing more complex and unpredictable and employers are increasingly looking for curious learners: people with an aptitude for cognitively demanding work and a thirst for knowledge. This applies even in areas not previously thought to be intellectually challenging.

Take football. Managers are no longer there just to pick the team or give a rousing half-time talk. They need to be tactically sophisticated, statistically literate and financially astute. Asked why there is a trend towards footballers with short playing careers becoming managers, José Mourinho replied, “More time to study.”

Curious people are often good at solving problems for their employers, because they’re really solving them for themselves. When confident that others are working on the same problem, most people cut themselves slack. Highly curious people form an exception to this rule.

We ought to be doing everything we can to foster curiosity but we undervalue and misunderstand it. Our education system is increasingly focused on preparing students for specific jobs. To teach someone to be an engineer or a lawyer is not the same as teaching them to be a curious learner – yet often the best engineers and lawyers are the most curious learners.

If there is one idea we need to be rid of it’s “natural curiosity”. Ever since Rousseau created Émile, the boy who learns best when left alone, we’ve been in love with the idea that children thrive when parents and teachers get out of the way. All the scientific evidence suggests the opposite.

Curiosity may be a fundamental human trait but intellectual curiosity is hard work. It requires a willingness to learn things that can seem pointless at the time but turn out to be useful later, and to perform boring tasks such as writing out equations over and over again. This is dependent on the guidance of adults and experts.

The web is just as likely to neuter curiosity as supercharge it. It presents us with more opportunities to learn than ever before, and also to watch endless videos of kittens. Those who acquire the habits of intellectual curiosity early on will use computers to learn throughout their lives; those who don’t may find they are replaced by one, having had their curiosity killed by cats.

Ian Leslie is the author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (Quercus, £10.99)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear