October 6, 2014

Curiosity or Security: What do YOU care about...?

I was so glad to read Maha's wonderful post Untitled and messy: trust in the blogosphere. It gets at so many of the issues that are most on my mind in Connected Courses right now. The question of trust (and the related question of fear) is something I really want to understand better in order then to better understand just why it is that so few of my colleagues, even people who teach fully online courses, are participating in a sharing network online. The quote in Maha's post that really grabbed my attention was this one from Chris McCandless (Into the Wild):
…so many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.
The reason that quote really grabbed me was because it both fits me — I'm definitely a non-conformist, a mostly carefree person without worries, and not a conservative in any sense — but at the same time, I would not describe myself as adventurous. Certainly not adventurous to the degree that Chris McCandless was, and really not even adventurous by more modest standards.

So how is it that I manage to feel secure (without worries, not anxious, carefree)... even though I would not describe myself as adventurous?

And that is what made me realize that I need to write up something about the etymologies of the words in English that come from Latin CURA because the paradoxical array of meanings in English go back to that Latin word.

So, the Latin word CURA is a noun, and its basic meaning is "care, thought, concern," and much like those English words, Latin CURA can cover a wide range of experiences, from negative (trouble, worry, anxiety) to positive (care, attention, diligence). It was a very common word in Latin, and you can get a sense of the range of meaning in this detailed Latin-English dictionary online: cura.

Here, then, are some of the English words that come from Latin cura:

CURE: from Latin cura, in the sense of "to care" for something. We are used to the medical sense of the word now, but it originally had a spiritual sense, as you can see in the noun "curate," someone whose duty is the cure of souls. The noun "curator" has a more secular sense; to "curate" something is to care for it, to act as a keeper or guardian.

SECURE: from Latin se-cura, without cura, so "secure" means without concern, without worry, without care, carefree (but not careless). From this adjective, we get the noun "security." (This is also parallel to the English word "sinecure," from Latin sine cura, meaning without care, in the sense of without care or responsibility.)

CURIOUS: from Latin curiosus, meaning "full of care, full of concern" which now has a positive meaning in the sense of "eager to know, inquisitive" but it originally had the negative sense of "cautious, anxious, fastidious." From this adjective, we get the noun "curiosity." In the early 18th-century "curious" also came to mean a thing that "excites curiosity," which is why a person can be curious (eager to know), but things can also be curious (strange, odd, etc.). The English word "curio," a rare or unusual object, is a 19th-century abbreviation of "curiosity," in the sense of an object that excites curiosity.

So, back to Maha's post and the question of security and adventure. While I would not call myself an adventurer, I am absolutely a curious person. In fact, curiosity might even be my dominant character trait, stronger than just about anything else. I am curious about pretty much EVERYTHING. And, just as the proverb warns us, "curiosity killed the cat," I could conceivably get into trouble because of my curiosity... not because I am a thrill-seeker, not because I am even a risk-taker... but because my curiosity is really unlimited!

But here's something about that proverb: in its older form it was "care killed the cat," in the sense of worry, anxiety, etc. See, for example, Shakespeare in Much Ado about Nothing: "What, courage man! what though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care." So, in the original sense, the proverb was about a scaredy-cat, a worried cat, an anxious cat. A cat who is insecure, not a cat who is curious.

I am NOT a cat who is full of care in the sense of worry or anxiety. Instead, I am a curious cat. Cats do come in both varieties, as everyone has seen: scaredy-cats and curious ones. That contrast came up in an earlier post where I shared two of my Latin LOLCats, one for fear and one for fearlessness.

In the end, then, my etymological diagnosis is this: security is not something of paramount importance to me, but curiosity is a driving force in my life. Given a choice between being full of cura (curious) and without cura (secure), I will choose curiosity over security every time.

I'm not sure this really gives me any insight into why my colleagues can remain so un-curious about connected learning, but at least it helps me sort out just what kind of cura I really care about in my own life!

Of course, curiosity does cut both ways, and here are two very opposite Polish proverbs on that subject: as you can see, curiosity is not universally approved, proverbially speaking. :-)

Without curiosity, there is no wisdom.
(Polish: Bez ciekawości nie ma mądrości.)

Curiosity is the first step to hell.
(Polish: Ciekawość pierwszy stopień do piekła.)


  1. Love this post Laura. Particularly on curiosity and how the curious won't accept the mundane or unexamined--or shouldn't anyway. As a selfish / curious person I may be accused of asking too much of the world but if attention is not returned in some sort of value, like an honest answer then I become a bit snippy and difficult. I think all of us in this short conversation give as authentically as we can and EXPECT the same in return. We aren't unreasonable to ask below the surface and expect genuine answers, as I believe Maha does virtually every day--insisting on the completeness of life lived.

    Questioning things is what it's all about and some feel insecure if their answers lack assurance. Not sure where this comes from? Being judged maybe? Yet questioning or seeking information is normal and not intended to reveal a persons inability to answer as a fault or weakness. Or maybe it has become a kind of test of competence while questions have become a measure of weakness and uncertainty? Scott

  2. Thank you, Scott! And what you say here about how questions are perceived is surely one of the key problems, although I had not thought about it like that. Probably it even cuts both ways: to ask questions is seen by some as ignorance (whereas I figure it is ALWAYS good to ask, so that we are always learning) ... and it can also be frustrating if someone asks a question and expects you to know the answer, but you don't (that must feel like being judged, taking a test, etc.). I don't worry about it either way: I'm never embarrassed to ask a question and never embarrassed if I don't know the answer... but I can definitely see how those can be emotion-laden situations for people. I definitely don't like being judged or having to take tests — but for me, luckily I guess, those feeling don't even intersect with the asking-and-answering of questions just for the seeking and sharing of knowledge.

    So, yeah, the whole judging / being judged thing is definitely part of this dynamic.

    Curiosity WITHOUT judging: that is definitely what I have in mind! :-)

  3. I love the both-and nature of your words. May be it helps you go someway to reframing your own understanding of your un-curious colleagues and allowing them space to be secure as you have the space to be curious? May be they will take small steps over time...talking to myself and my un-curious colleagues of course :)

  4. Thanks, Mariana! The in-security thing is so complicated exactly because it is partly an external thing (something others participate in), but it is sometimes an inner dialogue, impenetrable to others, and way deep down inside there, hard for anybody to reach. My sense is often that if people can articulate their fears, it turns out that the worst possible thing that can happen is really not all that bad... the problem is more the inarticulate fear, the shapeless, the nameless, way down deep inside.
    I know that from other things I am afraid of.
    But the Internet is not one of them. :-)


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