Among his many distinctions last week, President Obama became only the second President to use the word “curiosity” in an inaugural address. (The first of course, was William Henry Harrison, who holds the dual records for longest inaugural address and shortest term of office; the former no doubt contributing to the latter.)
Here is what Obama said, with “curiosity” shown in context:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.
What is truly extraordinary about this usage is that curiosity is seen not just as an innate human trait that some of us have and some do not, but as a value to which we can aspire, and a quality of behavior, like honesty and hard work, that we can willingly incorporate into our lives. We are simply not used to thinking about curiosity in this way. Can we try to be more tolerant, more courageous? Of course. But can we try to be more curious? We can…and we should!
And if the President is correct, as I believe he is, then we must teach, encourage, and honor curiosity throughout our society. It is not enough to remark how curious one or another student is, we must find it un-remarkable that all of them are curious. The end of school should not mark the end of our curiosity, it should be our license for a lifetime of inquiry.
If we temper our certainty with curiosity and examine the hundreds of assumptions that drive us day to day, we may just find new and better ways forward and in the process we might just also live far fuller lives.
Our success as a nation, says the President, depends on it. Our success as citizens and individuals may require it.