This is a series of posts about curiosity and what happens to curios kids as they grow up. In other words, how good are our institutions at welcoming, enabling and utilizing curiosity. This post is part one, in which I mainly talk about academia — it is after all, the obvious candidate for a place at which many curious kids go.
It might admittedly sound rather strange at first, but in the last few days, I have been obsessively watching physics lectures on youtube. For me, this was the culmination of a years-long desire to understand the physical universe a tiny bit better after years of frustration with the incomprehensible maths and jargon that used to block my comprehension in the past. Thankfully, an Oxford maths degree later, I am now finally able to begin understanding the language of modern physics.
If I have to be honest, making even a small amount of progress towards a long awaited goal has been quite unexpectedly rewarding and even enlivening experience. It has brought back memories of my high school days when I used to religiously play and meditate on autotuned science-themed songs made from scientific documentary clips (these videos introduced me to scientists and personalities I still love to this day — Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman being prominent examples, for instance).
Of course, I loved the videos not because of the “music” as much as the message and the sense of wonder they conveyed. Moreover, there was a sense of a community of people interested in science which I came to embrace. Overall, this early teenage experience served to make me reaffirm my commitment to studying maths and science so I could truly know more.
Today, I feel even an greater curiosity and a sense of wonder. It is amazing how watching a few physics lectures could reignite a burning child-like passion for knowledge and how it could recast a large dose of university-accumulated fear of inadequacy as merely an inconsequential and harmful obstacle to learning. In other words, in the last few days, I wanted to learn physics and I could care less if I was good at it or not — as long as I kept learning I was happy with myself. At least for a few hours in the day, time seemed to stop.
Eventually, however, reality came back to the picture. No matter how interested I was in physics, I had to face the fact that curiosity is expensive. This is what this post is about.
Now, if one had to formulate the state of most young people in their early 20s, a few words would undoubtedly come up: confusion, uncertainty, relative ignorance, change. Of course, there are the occasional exceptions who have long ago showed a sense of direction and are well on a settled lifelong path. But most of us are not in this group. Most of us are still exploring what is out there.
In a sense, that is what a curious person would do. After all, kids don’t have full access or knowledge of the world so as they enter into early adulthood, there are still many areas to explore and to recognize as truly one’s own. Kids might dream to be policemen or astronauts (because that’s what they can see), but they cannot dream of being a life coach, a political campaign lead or a marketing expert (or one of the many other professions which require a sense of how the world works and are not immediately obvious; one can also include any profession which touches on sex, love and other experiences which children clearly don’t understand at all) Although a valid expression for everyone, it is precisely these grown curious kids that embrace and live out the full meaning of “finding oneself”. Incidentally, this process is not always conscious. Sometimes it is forcefully kickstarted by a rejection or the first major obstacle along a carefully preplanned way ahead. At other times, it is a continuation of the sense of wonder before the complexity of the world. In both cases, however, the result is the same: the realization of the vastness of the human world and the millions of different opportunities around.
Naturally, such great choice creates anxiety and often indecisiveness. The inner result might be confusion, but the outer is going along society’s expectations. If you’re confused and frankly have no idea what you want to do with your life, the path of least resistance is to simply do that which you will never be asked to defend (because you have no way of defending any choice you’ve made yet). In reality, this means going to college, getting a job or something like this — in Oxford, for example, for half of the mathematicians in my year it meant doing a PhD just so they could buy time and figure their life out.
To be honest, there is much value in following the status-quo and social expectations. You get questioned less, there are more funding opportunities available and more interest in what you do. You are much more often to be recognized for doing a good job if you’re doing a job that people are recognizing as useful. Nonetheless, there are downsides as well. The main reason for them is this: curiosity is not always about utility. In other words, in any domain, to be curious is not always the same as to be useful. For instance, in science, not every research done today will find a practical use. Hell, not every research will find theoretical use either! And the same dynamic plays out in the business world (not every business idea will succeed, quite the contrary — it will most likely fail!), the government world (not every policy proposed will be implemented and even if it was, it may or may not work), etc. Crucially, the same dynamic plays out in the personal world of each of us — what is interesting and what we are curious about is not necessarily what is going to be useful. For example, if you’re an accountant, then learning how to play the guitar will likely make little difference to your career (you won’t suddenly become a musician and music won’t magically make you better at accounting). And yet, you might be dying of curiosity to know music…
I mentioned above that quite a few of my friends chose to do a PhD. Why didn’t I? It’s a deep question with many layers of answers to it.
Firstly, academia is not simply an abstract space for the curious. It’s not ideology-free. Academia, from what I directly witnessed at Oxford and indirectly saw elsewhere, is not on the whole the sort of open and welcoming place that I imagined. For one, there is the gnawing sense that ideology often takes precedence to truth in the humanities. As a result, the humanities have often struck me as less like a genuine forum for ideas and more like an ideological monolith with an agenda. Of course, tenure is the hypothetical solution to such problems, but I’ve become skeptical of its efficiency. To be blunt about it: the more ideology permeates the humanities (and increasingly beyond them as well), the more the academic system will select not for original thinkers, but rather for ideological conformists. The result will be that tenure will not protect the heterodox, but precisely the ones that are best at mouthing off the prevailing orthodoxy. Of course, some dissenters on a tenure track who still hold an idealistic view of academia will remain undetected by this ideological screening (or will be the lucky few in a bubble that actively tries to avoid it). Maybe some will get a tenure eventually. But how many of them will suddenly voice their year-long concerns, especially If future career progress is at stake? Likely not many — after all, for all their dissent, these are people that have found the system tolerable enough for years! And besides, being a curios person does not (and should not have to) mean being in the position to wage an ideological war. Temperament, social skills and time limitations all come into play here. As long as the overwhelming cultural forces in academia tend to favor one ideology (whatever that is at a given time) at the cost of curiosity, there will be a natural movement of people out of the academic institutions.
But even besides the ideological problems and the thought and speech police, there are other structural factors that put me off academia. Put simply: smart people tend to be arrogant. Of course, arrogance is in some sense a human universal (I am often guilty of it too), but academia has never struck me as trying to limit the damage of arrogance. At least at Oxford, the academic culture was almost always one of almost incessant argumentation and rarely one of honest conversation. In fact, most of the time conversations were non-argumentative, it was because people simply formed cliques that already agreed with each other. At least in my experience, it was difficult to find genuinely curious people willing to discuss all ideas in their best light. And all of this was at an undergraduate level where academic pressures are least prominent. As academia is (at least in theory) based on intelligence, the whole academic culture often devolves into one-upmanship and signaling, of everyone trying to prove to everybody else that they know more. After all, intelligence is, to a first approximation, the whole measure of worth in the academic world. As a consequence, the whole culture of academia is not one of curiosity and exploration, but one of belligerence and constant argumentation — if everything you say is going to be argued with, no wonder some say there is no truth!
Unfortunately, this culture of belligerence and the resulting self-segregation across disciplines and positions sometimes infects research too. Academia is supposed to be a battleground for ideas, but it often turns into vain intelligence and popularity contests, name-calling and elitism. The question for me is why be a part of a system which even if you do everything right might still disrespect you? (a phenomenon much more prominent in the humanities where empirical tests and strict logical proofs are unavailable as fair arbiters of dispute and where there is just as much if not more status competition and envy). Moreover, in the more realistic case, why join a system in which even if I do my best to further human knowledge, the reward I get will be at best uncertain?
What I mean is this: if a curios kid fascinated by science / philosophy / art grows up and starts doing a PhD, there is little guarantee that academia will recognize their work as useful. It is important to say that here I am not talking about the top students — the nobel laureates and their equivalents. If the academic system failed to respect those people, it would be completely useless. I am talking about the rest of scientists whose names you won’t ever hear about, but who are in their labs and offices everyday working and whose discoveries pave the way for some next nobel laureate to come along. What is in academia for them? Besides a few conference visits and the occasional citations, there is the uncertainty of funding, the constant competition with others for grants, the frustration with the academic bureaucracy and, depending on the perceived quality of your work, the envy / hostility / dismissal by others around. Combine all of this with ideological considerations mentioned above as well as the over-saturation of the academic market and the resulting picture of academia becomes less and less attractive. (to the point where it’s unclear if academia serves the curiosity instinct as well as it’s supposed to)
In fact, academia is especially unattractive because the internal market forces (supply of tenure-track positions vs demand for them, available grants and governmental funding, etc.) often create incentives that are not necessarily aligned with a curious exploration of the world. What often results from this mismatch is a high pressure to publish and publish regularly. That is probably my biggest philosophical concern with the academic world as it stands.
Artists often complain that market forces destroy their creativity and corrupt art. After all, an artists can only truly dedicate him/herself to one pursuit — of art or money. The image of the starving artist is a popular depiction of what often happens when a person chooses to pursue artistic exploration to the exclusion of market forces. Simply said, sometimes art takes too much time to be profitable (and hence justifiable to the market). Moreover, creativity suffers when individual expression is subjugated to the demands of others (after all, the market is a proxy for society at large and prices are an expression of society’s current values). Furthermore, good art requires tangential exploration into seemingly unrelated domains in search of great under-appreciated ideas. The combination of producing great works fast and without too much additional research often kills the dreams of many an artist. Some pull it off (eventually, after much wandering around and a successful accumulation of ideas). But some don’t. There is a misalignment of incentives.
Of course, art is not special in this regard. Some would go as far as arguing that most if not all human activities are completely misaligned with the market. I don’t know about this — it’s an awfully strong statement. But what I do know is that curiosity is much like the artistic drive. It needs to wander and explore, often without a specific aim or a deadline. In fact, having a specific goal or a deadline can often be blinding — after all, to transcend the conventional state of thinking, one has to be able to also transcend the way it defines its goals too. Both art and science depend fundamentally on creativity and creativity is like looking for the way while walking in the dark — it requires hitting a wall or two multiple times and going down paths that most likely will end up as dead-ends. And even if some research is just a matter of straightforward implementation, much other isn’t. In fact, the most important research — the one that has even the best minds confused and helpless — is the one that most requires that sort of creative wandering. And that sort of wandering (e.g. sabbaticals, hobbies, etc) sometimes takes researchers away from their field of expertise. It enables an inter-subject cross-pollination of ideas.
Unfortunately, when you have to publish all the time, creativity tends to suffer. Fewer alleys get explored when there is no time for deviations from the main road. Senior researches might be able to afford the luxury of wandering around, but junior ones less so. One could argue they don’t yet know enough for deviation to even make sense, but curiosity is ultimately just following a hunch and seeing where it leads. It might lead nowhere. But it might lead to a nobel prize. Curiosity is in some deep sense a risky activity. Academia is less and less so. Research proposals and publish pressures and insufficient funding all have the effect of stifling creativity or incentivizing straightforward exploration as opposed to fundamental research.
Of course, the risk-aversion is structurally built-in to the nature of academia. Academia requires regular positive results whose utility is obvious in advance (so that funding can be secured through a sufficiently enticing research proposal). I don’t have / I don’t know if there is any data to back me up on this, but I have the feeling that such an academic system is missing out on important developments that could have been made. Not every research is a matter of doing an experiment known in advance. Not every field has incorporated any and all wanderings into itself (like philosophy and to some extent maths, for example). And curiosity certainly isn’t driven by a need to satisfy an externally imposed need to be useful. (I am always reminded of Andrew Wiles working in secret for years without a guarantee of success — how many such projects are currently made impossible by academia?)
Before moving off the topic of academia, I have to mention that the misalignment of curiosity and research reality is far from the only reason why academia is not even in principle that attractive to me. There are a whole lot of other issues — mental health risks (I have many friends doing PhDs advising me to never do one myself because it’s allegedly both deeply depressing and a waste of time), opportunity costs (made even worse by the often insufficient science funding), the aforementioned academic politically correct orthodoxy whose radical proponents are opposed to the freedom of speech and expression, etc.. Moreover, academic life is often lonely and comes bundled with a whole set of hidden administrative (and depending on the person, teaching) nuisances.
I’ll explore these and continue with my discussion of curiosity in my next post