A culture of healthy intellectual curiosity
AMID THE awe and excitement over the images of Pluto from New Horizon, one cannot help but wonder if the Philippines could have its own space program someday. While there are individual Filipinos such as planetary scientist Christopher Go who contribute to astronomy and other space-related sciences, a full-fledged, organized national space program remains a dream.
Granted, the wisdom of prioritizing a space program in a country that cannot even keep its commuter trains running is debatable. Still, that promoting science and technology in general will spur national development is hardly disputed.
As to how the Philippines can improve its promotion of science and technology, many ways can be proposed: more budgetary allocations for science and technology and for STEM education; more interactions among government, industries and academe; more international linkages with local universities; and so on.
All these proposals are well and good. However, all the financial and institutional support for science and technology would be inutile without scientists and technologists, and there could be no scientists and technologists without the basic human impulse that motivates research in the first place. In fact, the lack of financial and institutional support for science and technology could be merely a symptom of a deeper problem: a lack of appreciation for the pursuit of knowledge.
In other words, the promotion of a culture of healthy intellectual curiosity is a key element of developing science and technology. Not all intellectually curious individuals eventually become scientists and technologists, nor should they all be. But all scientists and technologists start out by asking questions about the world around them, and never giving up until they find answers. The recent encounter by New Horizon with Pluto is simply the culmination of years of efforts to find answers to questions.
Furthermore, no scientist or technologist has succeeded without moral, financial and
institutional support from those who, without being scientists or technologists themselves, nevertheless consider the pursuit of knowledge a worthy endeavor.
Does this mentality exist in the Philippines? Many articles about the alleged culture of anti-intellectualism in the country have been circulating in the social media recently, and unfortunately, a casual observation of the general tone of the local public discourse confirms that these articles make a strong case. (See, for example, Julia Jasmine Madrazo-Sta. Romana’s article, “Smart-shaming and our Pinoy Culture of Anti-Intellectualism,” www.gmanetwork.com, 7/6/15.)
But Filipinos are not born anti-intellectual. Anyone who has had to endure a child’s endless “why’s”, or listen to him or her rattle off a succession of facts about planets, dinosaurs, airplanes, computers, or whatever his or her obsession happens to be at the moment, knows that children are naturally intellectually curious and capable of absorbing knowledge like a sponge. Filipino children are no different.
However, such healthy intellectual curiosity has to be nurtured—for example, by quality dinner-time family conversations, educational activities like visits to museums, exposure to wholesome media, or positive learning experiences in school—or it will die. How much of these opportunities to nurture children’s latent intellectual curiosity are being provided in the Philippines?
Nurturing healthy intellectual curiosity in a culture that does not value it is a challenge, but it is not enough. If, in this essay, the qualifier “healthy” is attached to the term “intellectual curiosity,” it is because unhealthy intellectual curiosity exists. For example, an insatiable appetite for show biz gossip is a form of intellectual curiosity, and a prevalent one at that. Whether it is the type of intellectual curiosity that would lead to national development when fostered among the populace is another thing.
Could it be, then, that the problem is not so much that Filipinos are not intellectually curious as that such curiosity is not channeled to the pursuit of relevant knowledge?
The promotion of a culture of healthy intellectual curiosity is a tall order, as it is not easy to transform an entire culture. However, there are certain sectors that are capable of more directly influencing culture for good or for ill.
One is the media. The potential of the mass media to educate has not been fully exploited in the Philippines. In my conversations with local media practitioners, I have always heard about their need to constantly generate fresh ideas. At the same time, I have encountered their reluctance to break away from their preconceived notions of what the masses are interested in. That science, art, history—indeed, the entire vast field of knowledge—could be tapped as a source of media content is seldom considered. Hopefully, this trend will change if media practitioners reading this would decide to produce magazines or shows that whet the masses’ appetite for relevant knowledge.
Another sector is the family. Culture can be transformed the way it is most commonly transmitted: from parents to children, by fostering an atmosphere of healthy intellectual curiosity at home. If more parents do this, perhaps in time a general culture of intellectual curiosity might be developed. Then, perhaps the prospect of the Philippines having a national space program might not be too farfetched—or, at least, perhaps someone might find a way to keep our commuter trains running.
Cristina A. Montes graduated from the Master en Derecho de la Globalizacion e Integracion Social program of the Universidad de Navarra in Spain. She also holds bachelor’s degrees in laws and in humanities (specializing in philosophy) from the University of the Philippines and the University of Asia and the Pacific, respectively.