What’s Killing Curiosity?


Are young adults today a less curious lot than the previous generation? I’m not asking if they’re less odd (that’s a debate for another time). I’m asking if they’re less inquisitive, if they ask fewer questions and if they have less of a desire to understand the world around them.

My best friend and professional mentor Les Potter recently blogged about this subject. Les is a few years into his new career as a visiting professor of public relations and integrated communications at Towson University. He brings to the classroom more than 30 years of experience as a communication professional with organizations large and small. He’s also widely known in our industry as the leading expert in strategic communication planning. Les’s students are fortunate to be learning from a master of our profession — and most of them know it.

But Les blogged about what he sees as a disturbing lack of curiosity among many of his students. This past semester, Les had about 75 students in four classes. “Yet in all of these interactions, only occasionally will someone ask a question of any substance,” he wrote. “Few make observations that capture insightful interest in or understanding of things. Most never even comment on their surroundings. They seem oblivious to a deeper exploration of ideas and concepts, not only the abstract or obtuse, but the practical as well, like how to get and keep jobs in communication/PR/IMC.  In short, they seem to be devoid of curiosity.”

I’ve witnessed the lack of curiosity Les laments. It’s not across the board, but it is noticeable. I have a theory (unproved) about why so many students — and young adults just entering the workplace — lack the kind of curiosity that is so vital to success in any business discipline, especially communication.

It’s social media’s fault — at least partly.

Really the problem began with a generation of parents who made their little precious ones the center of the world. Reacting  to previous generations of parents who said children should be seen and not heard, the parents of today’s young adults raised kids who are seen, heard, catered to, bestowed upon and generally worshipped. This is the generation of “helicopter parents” who swoop in when their babies (at age 20) are having a hard time with a college professor. Many young adults of this generation are ill-equipped to deal with the harsh realities of the world around them because mom and dad have always fixed their problems.

And this generation was perfectly poised for the explosion of social media. Kids who were raised to believe the world revolves around them find that it truly does on Facebook and MySpace. “What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks, and its users figure the world is just dying to know.

I realize I’m generalizing. Not every 20-something is so self-absorbed. I know quite a few young adults who are socially aware, intellectually curious and mindful of the needs of others. But my generalization holds true for many — like the students Les described.

Also, I feel well qualified to comment on the self-focus perpetuated by social media because I’m guilty of it myself. I have a Facebook account. I’ve done my share of sharing too much about what I’m working on, who I’m dating, what my kids are doing that drives me nuts and what I’m doing this weekend. Why? Because I can. Because it’s fun. And maybe because there’s some deep-seated need for engagement and the recognition of others. That might be a therapy issue. But I do catch myself from time to time and I try to use Facebook as much to learn about my friends, their families, their interests and their needs as to talk about my own.

Then there’s this blog — the ultimate in self-gratification, where I can write pretty much anything that’s on my mind, hold public discussions with anybody who takes the time to read it and even delete any comments I don’t like. (For the record, I haven’t done that yet and hope I never do. But hey, it’s my blog!)

This is the real “Me Generation” and, unlike its ancestor from the last century, this one has the technology to enable its self-absorption. The result is a focus on our own little worlds at the expense of the world around us. If we’re not careful, social media can consume our thirst for knowledge about anything other than ourselves.

Update 5/28/09: Readers interested in this topic might find this column in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch interesting. It’s from Matt Thornhill of the Boomer Project and it deals with the life goals and priorities of the Millennial generation compared to Gen-X and other previous generations.

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9 Responses

  1. Sometimes I think the lack of depth isn’t just confined to kids. Look at the agenda setting in the narrow range of topics covered by the news media, for instance. As for self-absorption in social media, we adults may have a thing or two to learn from our kids. To them it is a continuous, wide-open conversation with their friends.

    I heard a great presentation at an IABC Heritage Region conference by Diane Gayeski. Her theory is that social media is the “village” to kids today; much in the same way hundreds of years ago you could look out over the village and see all your people, kids now do that online.

    Kids see social media in a totally different way than we do, because in their experience it has always been there. We didn’t have all these tools growing up, or even pretty recently, so we’ve had to adapt.

  2. I agree, Ray, that digital natives view social media in a very different way than we digital immigrants do. And I also believe social media have made communication among “the village” a lot better overall. I know this from my own experience. I’m in touch with people I otherwise would not be connected with and I feel so much more a part of my friends’ lives.

    But I also believe it’s easy to get so wrapped up in our social media worlds that we run the danger of losing touch with the bigger world. I think a subtle but powerful inward shift of focus takes place that can prevent us from seeing what’s going on around us and being curious about those things.

    As with most things, social media are bringing about good and not-so-good changes. I believe one of the not-so-good changes is the decline in curiosity that Les observes in his students.

    • Right after I commented, I was reminded of one of my pet peeves about the use of social media networks. I’m concerned that a lot of people who are coming to age in a web 2.0 world really believe that friending and following people online is the same as a real, personal relationship. It’s funny — there’s even an acronym: “IRL friends.” I didn’t know what it was at first, but it stands for “in real life friends,” as opposed to online friends.

      Boomers have spent their entire careers getting to know people the old-fashioned way — by networking with real people, face to face. I think this is all part of what you and Les are observing. It does tend to insulate people who do most or all of their networking online, because they only see a small sliver of reality. And I can tell you for sure that not a lot of teens or 20s limit conversations to 140-character tweets.

      As a matter of fact, another bad side effect is that online conversation — i.e., “texting,” as compared with actual writing or conversation — is destroying writing skills.

      • Just today I was in my son’s 7th grade Language Arts class to see him give a book report presentation. One of the other students was giving his report and included a slide with the word “cuz” on it (meaning “because”). The teacher stopped the kid and asked the class what was wrong with the slide. Almost in unison, several responded, “Text message spelling.”

        I feel sorry for teachers today and all the un-learning they have to take their students through.

  3. Robert, this is a brilliant and insightful post. I think you nailed it — social media. Social media allows instant connection with relatively short interchanges. It makes interaction immediate and brief.

    Perhaps that is why we hear of people sending thousands of text messages a month. There is this compelling desire to connect, to be in the know minute by minute, but it does not transfer into the old-fashioned classroom environment.

    Another unscientific piece of evidence — I observe my students as they leave class. They might have jhust sat through a 75-minute class without uttering a word, but the minute they are out the door, they are on their cells phones talking or textiing. What major events could have rocked their worlds in the past 75 minutes?

  4. I know one thing: I don’t want my daughter to grow up unable to communicate using her ears to listen and her mouth to speak.

    There are probably many factors playing into this generations’ make-up and you’ve identified several of them. I item I stand by and have for a long time is that the key is parental involvement. To your point, Robert, in general, parents have worked to be friends versus being parents. What has happened to rules? You know, “no texting at the dinner table”; “no television while we eat dinner”; “have you done your homework – you have? – let me see it”; “have you done your chores?”; and the list goes on and on.

    It’s interesting you bring up the example with Les. During this past weekend – Memorial Day weekend – my family and friends got into a discussion about how much history my child will learn about. It seems that when I was in school, the school-year ended by the time we got to WWII. So it is disturbing that some students – even in college – aren’t aware of the outside world and how it affects their world, and thus, aren’t engaging in meaningful discussions.

    I agree – we’re both generalizing here. There are many young people who use social media to do good things and are trying to make a difference. I applaud them. However, it is worrisome that there is a sense that not enough young people are curious enough to pursue questions and ideas. How are they going to lead the world one day?

  5. I think some of it is that this generation caters to their kids’ desire to watch TV, play computer games, etc. instead of kicking them out the door for the day and saying, “Go play” like my mom did. That forced us to get creative, follow a line of ants for hours, pretend our bikes were horses. That’s where curiosity starts in my mind. Turn off or limit the TV and computer time and get them out into life.

  6. When I wrote this post last night, I really expected some disagreement or at least pushback from readers. It’s interesting that among those of you who have commented so far, there’s mostly agreement that online social networking has potentially negative effects on users’ abilities to communicate effectively, nurture relationships with depth and think broadly about the world around us.

    I’m a parent of two adolescent boys and I’m the first to admit that I’m far from being a perfect parent. But one thing about which I am proud is that my sons are learning to interact with people and with the world around them the old-fashioned way — with real human contact and through involvement in real-world activities. One son probably watches a little too much TV and the other probably spends more time online than he should, but both have learned to value the richness of human relationships first and foremost.

    • Hello, Les.
      I’m at work tonight, pondering communication. I am 31 years old and have recently returned to college. I have observed similar deficiencies in curiosity among my classmates. Putting myself in their shoes and wriggling my own toes, I gather that what I am observing is complicated in at least three ways. Fisrt, being too insightful or inquisitive as I have witnessed is worthy of sanction by peers. And secondly, the content of the lectures and textbooks are generally transferred to students as less than debatable facts backed up by statistics and scholarly sources. Lastly, there seems to be a rush to simply get through the material, rather than think critically about it. This is not the case in every class I’m sure. My frame of reference is from classes composed of mainly freshman and sophmores, in Tupelo and Fulton Mississippi.
      I got a message that the objective of attending school was getting the degree and the understanding and weilding of the lessons deeper implications was secondary. To behave contrary to this notion is regarded generally as freakish. Even the instructors in general seem irritated and puzzled by genuine interest. Moreover, this says that the new time for curiosity questions and insight is in a private e-mail or in an extracurricular club geared toward that subject. On the social media venues students a railroaded and persecuted for being progressive in some populations (a pre-teen girl in church admitted), curiosity is a form of deviance today.
      In the 9th grade I reflected on the courtship of students during class from the perspective of priorities effect on developing society. A student asked to see what I was writing, and denied my observations. And the self centering is still real and relevant. Child rearing and media propagate it, I agree and unconsiously reward it perhaps as well.
      I’m a crusader for reflection, challenging trends, and curiosity. In the same way, Socrates wasn’t a criminal, he simply encouraged curiousity. I havehigh hopes for tomorrow.

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