Cats, Curiosity, and Charles Dickens

There is a saying: “Curiosity killed the cat”, and doubtless there is some truth in this, as cats are excessively curious creatures. Certainly, when Leo’s curiosity led him to unfasten the latch of a window on the second floor, and to creep through on to a narrow ledge, from where he was unable to make his return, there seemed to be some truth in this saying. Fortunately he was rescued, and survived to explore another day.

But we humans can learn from our feline friends.

For curiosity is one of the most valuable and glorious gifts that we possess. It leads us to explore, experiment, and make new discoveries. That is how we learn.
Sadly, I do find an increasing lack of curiosity in many young people nowadays. And it is not surprising. They spend so much time being crammed with information, with no time or encouragement to absorb and digest this in any meaningful way, so that the facts cannot become assimilated, connected, contextualised and understood at a deeper level. Curiosity and creativity become stifled. I can give many examples, but here is just one.

During a piano lesson, in which the student was working on a Beethoven sonata, I asked him which of the symphonies of Beethoven he was familiar with, or had at least heard. He looked blank at my question, so I tried again. This time he did manage to reply. “ oh, well we did the 9th for A-level”. I think the reavealing word here is “did.” I am afraid I saw red. I told him to forget all that rubbish, and to go and explore the symphonies for the sheer pleasure of doing so. How can listening to great music be reduced to a chore? The problem is that our education system is so obsessed with measuring, quantifying, assessing and analysing everything, not to mention the dreaded “ticking boxes,”that we lose sight of the context, the whole picture, and thus any deeper knowledge. Unless we restore the context or bigger picture we are left with pieces of information that do not connect or mean anything.

Perhaps nothing changes much over time. One hundred and fifty years ago Charles Dickens was preoccupied with the increasing dominance of fact over fancy in the education of the young.( Fancy being his own word for imagination.) In his novel, Hard Times, Dickens depicts a terrifying system of education as practised by the fearsome headmaster, Thomas Gradgrind.

“Now, what I want is facts. Teach the boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. Stick to the facts.”
He swept his eyes over the little children, whom he regarded as vessels waiting to be filled with Imperial gallons of facts, poured into them until they were full to the brim.

“Blitzer, what’s your definition of a horse? “
“Please, sir, quadruped, 40 teeth, namely 24 grinders, 4 eye-teeth, and 12 incisors. Sheds coat in the Spring, and in marshy country sheds hooves as well. Hooves hard, but requiring to be shod with iron, and age known by marks in mouth.” There was much more on the subject from Blitzer.
“Now”, said Mr Gradgrind, “you all know what a horse is.”
In this world, there was no room for art, imagination or anything creative. When Mr Gradgrind overhears his daughter, Louisa, say to her brother, “Tom, I wonder…….”
Mr Gradgrind interrupts sternly with the words, “Louisa, never wonder.”

Hard Times was based on Dickens’ own experience of his schooldays.

“It’s a miracle that curiosity ever survives formal education” – Albert Einstein

On a happier note, it is a little-known fact that Charles Dickens was a great cat-lover. He once asked, “what greater gift is there than the love of a cat?” When a favourite cat, Bob, died in 1852, Dickens had one of its paws stuffed, and used it as a letter-opener. How bizarre is that?

I have absolutely no intention of having Leo stuffed!

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