We have a duty to be curious
In 2008, I spoke to a group of care and leaving care service managers and practitioners in the east of England, to report back on the findings of a project I had been involved in. As I sat during the coffee break waiting to speak, I made a few additions to my script.
I had been mulling the role of the frontline practitioner working with young people and how they are the conduits through which any service is delivered. Thinking on this and the focus on educational attainment of my presentation, I wrote: “You have a duty to be curious”.
My point was to suggest that young people in and leaving care need us to model the qualities and characteristics we want them to develop. We were talking about fostering a love of learning in young people and supporting the development of high aspirations but we weren’t talking about how we do that for ourselves.
So “you have a duty to be curious” sort of fell out of my head, framed in those terms because the language of duties is so familiar to all of us working with vulnerable young people, and because I felt it was both pleasingly whimsical and incredibly important.
I still believe it and it’s never been far from one of my presentations since. It’s not just relevant to young people in and leaving care either. Vulnerable and disadvantaged young people often have a very complex or disrupted educational experience and this can lead to a failure to engage with learning for its own sake, never mind to acquire a handful of GCSEs.
As adults working with these groups, we need to look at our own engagement with the world, our openness to new ideas or knowledge, our willingness to explore and ask questions, to critically appraise. If we don’t do these things ourselves, how can we help young people re-engage with school or discover an enthusiasm for learning? We must model it for them, help them see that curiosity about the world.
There’s a link, of course, between a critical mind that is asking questions and an engagement with the political process. We’re getting better at helping young people get involved in decision-making about the services they receive but there are still places where this is done badly or not at all. We should do more to build that link and help young people realise their role as social actors in our political culture.
Carl Sagan, the renowned astrophysicist, was a great believer in the importance of asking questions. He was clear that an enquiring mind was fundamentally linked to the preservation of democracy. In his final television interview before his death in 1996, he said:
“Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.
If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then, we are up for grabs for the next charlatan (political or religious) who comes rambling along.”
So many of us in the voluntary sector are working with vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, whether we are delivering a statutory duty or not. If our role is to help them develop into the happy, engaged, educated and secure adults we want them to be, we must show them what one looks like. That means we must not step back from important questions or our own engagement with politics.
Carl had a point, don’t you think?