The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Lessons Learned: Curiosity and the Importance of Asking 'Why?'


We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” —Walt Disney

While college teaches you a lot, I think what it might do best is drive a curiosity within you and a desire to learn more.

Yes, you can go to class every day. You can listen to the lectures and discussions and pick up on the material. You can take the tests, get good grades, yada yada yada. Of course, this is all important; a good GPA will help you earn jobs and other opportunities down the road. But if you really want to strive to make the most of college curriculum, I think being curious is the best way to do so.

Learning something only to learn it for the test and then forget it seems a little pointless, right? After all, you should learn to understand something, whether it be a conceptual idea or technical skill. And if you truly want to flesh out your ability to learn something, being curious and asking “why” is probably your best bet.

I am an operations and information management major (OIM), and when I tell that to people, it mostly just flies over their heads. In my coursework, I’ve been learning a bit about database structures, analytics, and the “internet of things.” If you told me three years ago this is what I’d be doing in college, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. I twice changed my major before settling on OIM, but ever since I started learning about the topic, my interest in the field has only grown. There’s already so much data out there (over sixteen trillion gigabytes, to be exact) and this number grows every day. I think what pushes my curiosity in the topic is the desire to have a part in handling it all, an important task that will keep society functioning on a day-to-day basis, help effectively communicate and influence decision making in both a resource-friendly and ecologically-efficient manner.

One of my favorite summer reading books growing up was Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam, based on a true story of a group of boys with a rocketry fascination in a small mining town in 1957 West Virginia. Against all odds, the boys worked on building and launching model rockets, eventually working their way out of the cycle of life in the town in which most young boys grow up to be coal miners. Driven by their curiosity, the boys were able to reach a previously unfathomable goal. Taking this lesson and applying it today, it can inspire us to keep a curious mind.

I think the Rocket Boys set a good standard to look up to; it’s never a bad thing to be curious, and often our curiosity pushes us to otherwise unreachable places. Behind everything we learn and everything we observe, there may be some context that we are missing, and understanding the context of these situations can only be achieved if we ask “why?” I’ve found this method of analyzing situations and asking the “why” question to be important in both my work here at the Honors College and as a reporter for the Daily Collegian newspaper, where asking why something is the way it is challenges an interviewee to reflect and give a more well-thought-out answer than just asking surface questions. However, not just asking others, but also asking yourself why you see something the way you do is a helpful self-reflection tool.

I previously blogged about how my mentors shaped me, specifically citing Bridgewater State University professor Jim Quinn. I recall one moment while teaching a class with Jim where we asked students what their favorite ice cream flavor is and why it is their favorite. There was an unbelievable amount of kids who couldn’t explain why they like their favorite flavor so much, and I recall Jim saying something along the lines of:

“A lot of older people don’t even know how to express themselves because they never practiced it as a kid. If you tell me your favorite ice cream flavor is pistachio, tell me why! Is it the sweet and salty mixture of the nuts and the ice cream, or some other reason?”

In this sense, curiosity allows one to learn something to reflect on themselves. How can we really understand our interests, what drives us, and what we want to do if we don’t know why we are interested in these things.

My conclusion is that college allows you the opportunity to be curious, and it’s important to utilize the opportunity to learn about yourself, your interests, and others. I implore you to keep a curious mind and always ask why in your studies, in your daily life, and to yourself because the pursuit of knowledge is so much vaster in doing so.