04/12/2012 03:15 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2012

The Problem With Curbing Curiosity

I recently attended The Harris Center's annual Public Forum focusing on body image and the media. David B. Herzog, the Center's director, welcomed speakers Arianna Huffington, Franca Sozzani, and Doutzen Kroes.

I also attended a book reading in September featuring Emily Fox-Kales and her book Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders.

Rather than settle on using the fashion/film/television industries as scapegoats for the growing problem of eating disorders, we should acknowledge that our views of reality in all respects can be blurred by other areas of the mainstream.

Fashion/film/television -- just as with world history and current news -- should be open to analysis. At the Public Forum, there was a concern on how all models in a runway show look alike. Certainly individuality should be encouraged, especially with young people, but with that said, it could also be pointed out that perhaps the models in a particular show have similar hair, makeup, and size so that the focus is on the clothes.

Whether about history as well as current world affairs or thoughts on beauty or health, people aren't encouraged to continually question what they're told about reality, often accepting at face value one source of information rather than looking for alternative sources to come to their own decisions.

Peter McLaren, in his book Life in Schools, notes that "we have been 'fed' these dominant ideologies for decades through the mass media, schools, and family socialization." He also mentions "the way reality is usually constructed is as a collection of unalterable truths and unchangeable social relations." McLaren adds that students "are not provided with the requisite constructs to help them understand why they feel as badly as they do."

Sadly, if teachers (or family, or media) don't ask questions, then usually children will stop asking as well -- and their natural curiosity and imagination, which are the stepping stones to skeptical thinking, become censored in the meantime.

Whether about politics or thoughts on beauty, people aren't encouraged to question what they're told about reality. Why don't more people question what they are told is real and then look for alternative sources for information? Before changes can take place, people must realize the need for such change. They must see the sometimes harsh realities as they truly are. In Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media, Michael Parenti points out that it is imperative to "contrast and compare and open ourselves to information and questions that the mainstream media and the dominant belief system in general have ignored or suppressed."

I believe that children do so naturally, but soon are guided to focus on alleged facts/teaching to the test, leaving their natural curiosity squelched. What is needed back is their natural ability to think critically -- to be skeptical about what we are told about reality and to imagine how it could be different.

As far as body image, the growing interest in healthy eating and fitness for children is certainly encouraging. Questions were asked there -- perhaps more so because of the problem with obesity, but it is hopeful that the focus on health would open the door for dialogue across the spectrum. From there, we can hope for more discourse and skeptical analysis about all aspects of what we have been accepting without question across all subjects.

What's needed is a healthy combination of curiosity, imagination, and skepticism.

These aren't new ideas. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "At a child's birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity."

Einstein, too, believed that "the important thing is not to stop questioning" and that "imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress... "

Carl Sagan, too: "Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere. "

These qualities are part of our natural development, but unfortunately, the emphasis on learning facts gets in the way of nurturing these natural traits. As Einstein said, "The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think." That goes for all ages, as it's no wonder that ends up happening in college if it happens as early as in preschool.

Look at the protagonists in children's literature, and often you see that healthy combination of curiosity, imagination, and skepticism. These characters are independent and face obstacles to find their way on their own path rather than just following the pack or blindly following the "norm." Are we really going so far in wiping out the arts that these heroes are no longer within reach: Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Curious George, Goldilocks, Winnie the Pooh, Encyclopedia Brown, Katniss Everdeen, Harry, Hermoine and Ronald from Harry Potter.

When given a slice of what is allegedly reality, they start to question what is going on around them and what they are being told is real. A natural skepticism leads them to imagine different ways things could be, so they continue the journey by not just listening to what they are being told to do or believe, but to seek out alternative sources, constantly questioning that which has been labeled "impossible" because they know inside things could be different. They did so independently, yet when not alone, they certainly weren't with characters identical to themselves.

If we stick only with mainstream, we will have a blurred view of reality, and the best thing to acknowledge and follow would be our innate state of curiosity, imagination, and skepticism. Developing independence and individuality would come naturally if we return to discussing things openly. Also, a return to more exposure to the arts would certainly open minds and lead to better acceptance and self-expression. This would also lead to learning to respect, value, and celebrate what makes us all unique.

"Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known." -- Oscar Wilde