Laurien Alexandre on a green back ground with the words Antioch University Graduate School of Leadership and Change Commencement Address 2023

Building a New Age of Democratic Curiosity

Laurien Alexandre’s 2023 Commencement Address to Graduates of the PhD in Leadership and Change on July 29, 2023.

The path to my July Commencement speech usually begins in early Spring. With a blend of curiosity and anxiety, I wonder where the path will lead. What words will I say to inspire graduates to fight boldly for democracy? What theme might bring new insights into how to further social justice and racial equity? What thought might spark radical imagination to save our overheated planet?  

I could go on, but you get my point. I feel LOTS of pressure these days – no, a responsibility – to come up with something inspirational and insightful.  

In past years…   

I called upon you, the graduates of Antioch’s PhD in Leadership & Change to read as if our country depended on it. It does.   

Another year I called out for radical hope as if our lives depended upon it. They do.  

Last year, I encouraged you to dissent as if democracy depended upon it. It does.

So, what, I wondered would I do this year? 

My curiosity got the best of me, and I actually became curious about curiosity. Initially, I worried that it wasn’t deep enough, powerful enough, like radical hope or the right to dissent. But it grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go.

I got excited thinking about Antioch’s PhD Program as a hub of curiosity that enriches lives, furthers justice … and oh, by the way, makes for damn good scholarship! I felt compelled to explore ways that democratic wonder leads to radical curiosity about a better world, and THAT leads to powerful questions about power, questions that in and of themselves are acts that challenge an inequitable status quo. So please come with me on this curious journey over these next 15 minutes.

Typical of my Commencement process, I began reading everything I could find, and not surprisingly, I learned there are all types of curiosities that lead to all kinds of questions.

There’s busybody curiosity, the incessant gossiper who wants to know everyone’s business and asks questions to pry. You know the type, right?

There’s empathic curiosity, those who ask caring questions to understand the experiences of others in ways that build connection. Like, how does that feel? What are you concerned about? How can I help?

There’s narrow curiosity, focused on a single question that leads to problem-solving, like scientific inquiry; 

There’s broad epistemic curiosity, problem-finding, the desire to know more that increases with exposure, sort of like what happened to me as I started this five-month quest!

Different disciplines look at curiosity differently, from science’s precisely designed investigations to philosophy’s considerations on the nature of questions to psychology’s quest to understand the mind, and so forth.     

There are lots of stories about curiosity gone awry, starting with Adam and Eve eating that fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge, and for that disobedience, they were banished. For much of human history, a questioning mind – particularly of edicts from church or state – was stigmatized and silenced.  

Socrates was accused of being a “criminal busybody” for asking too many questions and corrupting youth. For that, he was sentenced to prison and ultimately condemned to death. Plato thought “meddlesomeness was the ruin of the state.” He didn’t like citizens being too uppity. 800 years later, philosopher and theologian St. Augustine claimed that “hell is fashioned for the inquisitive.” I guess many of us are all going there!

I could go on, but you get my point. Questioning authority has never really been welcomed by those who have it. But we kept finding ways to be more curious. The Age of Discovery, the Scientific Revolution, The Enlightenment, The Age of Reason all explored new ideas, espoused skepticism and embraced questioning of accepted norms, at least some of them. 

If you can believe it, 17th Century European elites actually proudly displayed their glass-fronted “curiosity cabinets,” containing fossils and relics as a way to signal their status! Curiosity had become a symbol of wealth!

The French Revolution raised all sorts of profound questions about monarchy and democracy. Newspapers spread the word across the world, and henceforth impertinent journalists, unconventional scholars, and unorthodox writers often found themselves on trial or worse for asking too many questions of the wrong people.

One could actually look at human history as a curiosity struggle rather than a class struggle, a clash between those who want to open minds and those who want to close them down. But I won’t go there for now.

To make a long history short, there is a world full of curiosity. And THAT is a really good thing for people, politics, and the planet.

Perhaps though we are all far more familiar with Curious George, the adventurous monkey in the TV and book series, based on manuscripts smuggled out of Occupied France in 1941, premised on the belief that active learning starts with curiosity, and laying bare the dangers of conformity and blind, unquestioning obedience.

And that leads right into what I’m going to talk about today: curiosity in relation to Antioch’s mission to educate for meaningful lives and to further social, racial, economic, and environmental justice in a robust democracy.   

Suffice it to say, for me, curiosity is at the very core of fulfilling Antioch’s mission, in the way John Dewey thinks about a life full of inquiry or Paolo Freire in terms of critical curiosity as the basis of critical consciousness, which is the foundation for revolutionary social change.

On the whole, we tend to consider human beings as ‘naturally curious,’ the sort of innate wonder about the world around them, like babies touching a flame to see what it feels like. We tend to think of inquisitiveness as a personal trait or individual practice, like the incessant “why” questions of children.  

Indeed, those questions, our innate curiosity about each other enable humans to develop empathy and a shared understanding. It is at the core of being human. But, let’s not be naïve. Curiosity isn’t simply a human quality disconnected from one’s positionality or context. Questions aren’t value-free – nor are the questioners.

Have you ever thought of curiosity in terms of privilege? 

While we are all born with the capacity to ask questions, the ability to do so is unequally distributed, and the right to do so is unequally protected. As one study confirmed, middle-class children, for example, are the most likely to ask curiosity-based open-ended questions, the how’s and why’s, because their basic needs for food, shelter, and security are taken care of.

And when we do ask questions, they aren’t without biases. That’s what’s referred to as “curiosity formation.” It means that our questions are formed within and framed by a context. 

Just imagine the curiosity framed by a particular Eurocentric power structure. While a very caring “explorer” or anthropologist may be asking the questions, the curiosity formation stemmed from a Western colonial gaze on the “uncivilized” native. 

Or take the patriarchal inquisitor probing into women’s bodies, literally turning that curiosity into a burning stake in the ground.   

Recall that W. E. B DuBois opened his 1903 The Souls of Black Folk with the following, “Between me and the other world there is always an unasked question; unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. Nevertheless, they approach me …curiously and compassionately … How does it feel to be the problem?” How does it feel to be Black in a White world? One hundred and twenty years later, THAT question still reverberates.

Therefore, in our best efforts to get to know one another, to expand our understanding and build community, we need to be vigilant about our own curiosity formations. This should come as no surprise to graduates of the PhD program. We required you to reflect on your positionality, your own “curiosity formation” in how you ask, what you ask, who you ask, and why you ask.   

We hoped to nurture your own critical curiosity about each other as doctoral learners to connect meaningfully, to understand difference, and to find common cause for the common good. THAT sort of curiosity can be the source of living a meaningful life, a core aspect of the Antioch mission. 

Next, how might we think about curiosity’s relationship to leading change that furthers justice in organizations and communities, the other aspect of the mission?

I found dozens of books and articles focused on curiosity being at the core of good leadership. You know, the ‘good leaders ask great questions’ sort of approach. In 2016, the World Economic Forum placed curiosity at the top of their 21st-century character traits. And in a recent global survey, an overwhelming majority of CEOs cited curiosity as a critical leadership trait in these uncertain times.

But let’s get real. Leaders asking good questions doesn’t go far enough if you want to do more than maximize productivity, if you want to do more than increase efficiency, good questions aren’t enough if you want to further workplace equity and inclusion.   

Within an understandable desire for institutional predictability, organization leaders tend to ask small questions that lead to small answers in order to manage effective solutions rather than to cultivate unknown opportunities.  

Here too, curiosity-formation is palpable and pervasive.

In today’s reality, models of formal hierarchies, org charts structured with precision, and mindsets of chains of command feel so very out of touch.  

Whether due to COVID’s upending of all that we thought we knew or the rise of demagoguery in fragile democracies, or the realization that globalization doesn’t lift all boats, small questions and small answers won’t due. The changes we need today are of a fundamental, not incremental order.   

Not only do we need new answers to old questions, but we need to ask entirely different questions. We need to nurture a curiosity that unleashes questions that can transform … not just inform. We need curious problem-transformers to figure out the future of AI before it destroys us, halt the next pandemic before it’s upon us, or reimagine our cities before they collapse under the weight of floods, fires, or desperation.

Einstein once quipped, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the question, I can solve the problem in the last five minutes.”

Clearly, with every continent-wide heat dome, every once-in-a-millennium flood, or once-in-a-century fire, we know that humanity may only have those last five minutes. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say we need out-of-the-box curiosity to ask disruptive questions to tackle the wicked problems of our communities, country, and world.   

And that’s where you come in, as graduates of the PhD in Leadership & Change.

From the moment you walked into your first residency, we asked, ‘What are you curious about?’ That’s where it all started, remember? Then we trained you – month after month, year after what seemed like endless year – to turn your curiosities into research questions, methodological inquiry, specific ways of asking questions.  

You learned how to name it, frame it, investigate it, make meaning of it, and draw implications from it. And then you did it. Rigorous, disciplined inquiry into wicked problems. That’s what we Antiochians do!!!!

I want to be clear, though, that here too, everything from the topics to the methods to the meaning-making to the distribution of findings is conditioned by values. Here too, think about curiosity formation. Curiosity shaped by rigorous, disciplined methods of inquiry doesn’t mean the questions are bias-free or value-positive. 

We know that evil curiosity turned into well-crafted research questions can embolden the bad, very boldly and very badly. 

Just think about the scientific curiosity propelling Eugenics or the Tuskegee experiments. Even following rigorous methods can lead to madness. As Antiochians, I want to suggest that we use our methods of inquiry to counter the madness!

We can confirm that you have now been trained to ask difficult questions as practitioner-scholars. You have earned your PhD. But, I’m proud to say … and I hope you are too …  being a graduate of Antioch’s PhD Program is much more than a credential, as noteworthy and fulfilling as that may be.  

Our questions – your questions – must be driven by your values and our mission. Remember, it’s that expectation to go out and “win those victories for humanity.” 

Preeminent 20th Century author Zora Neale Hurston asks us to think of it in this way, “Research is formalized curiosity. It’s poking and prying with a purpose,”6 that purpose being to illuminate what life is like in the shadows.

You walk out of here today with a scholars’ research toolkit – qualitative, quantitative and mixed method – these tools are now in YOUR hands to use for the common good. Use them to inquire into injustice.  

Use them to investigate workplace inequities. Use them to illuminate stories of the marginalized. And use them to interrogate illegitimate power.

And that’s where I want to go now, in the final minutes of this talk.  

What does curiosity have to do with strengthening democracy? I’d say EVERYTHING. We know that democracy needs informed participation in democratic processes, like voting.

We must ensure the right to question so we can engage in robust and open debate on societal issues. We must hold our institutions accountable and for that, we need to be protected to inquire with the full strength of our imagination. These ideals – and I get that they are pretty tarnished and frayed these days – but as ideals they are reliant upon the practice of asking questions. 

Consider curiosity as a fundamental tactic of democratic engagement. Just think of when questions stopped demagogues in their tracks. When questions changed history.

Here are just two examples:

Recall the ignorant, closed-minded efforts in the 1920s to make teaching evolution in schools a crime …. so frighteningly akin to today’s efforts to criminalize the teaching of history in schools.  

It was Clarence Darrow’s penetrating and unrelenting questions in his brilliant cross-examination at the infamous Scopes Trial that turned this nation’s trajectory against the forces of censorship and emboldened academic freedom … even though Darrow knew he would lose the case, he didn’t stop questioning, and it changed the course of our country.

Or think of that historic televised moment in 1954, another dark and close-minded period in U.S. history, when Special Counsel Joseph Welch turned to the dangerous and rabid Senator Joseph McCarthy and calmly asked, “Have you no sense of decency left, sir?” It is said that almost overnight, those immortal words, that simple but powerful questioning of brute force, ended McCarthy’s witch-hunt and thankfully his career.

The point here is that questions matter. Think of questions that stop the forces of darkness in their tracks.

Instead of framing curiosity only as an innate human quality and personal practice, or as an important character trait of good leaders, or as the disciplined work of scholar-practitioners, let’s frame curiosity as a social force and collective practice to propel our most creative democratic imagination.

Think of powerful questions that get movements started and sustain them.  

One provocative analysis I read for this speech examines curiosity as being at the core of social struggles from the Civil Rights movement to movements for Disability Rights, Prison Reform, and LBGTQ rights.  

As the author, philosopher Perry Zurn notes, they all started with a commitment to curiosity. “First, there is the curiosity it takes to gather relevant information: the brutal record of injustice. This curiosity pits itself against the forces of media and government that refuse to tell these stories or collect the data. And then, there is that curiosity that fuels protest and whether this will finally be enough to change hearts and minds. Curiosity is integral,” Zurn concludes, “to pursuing an informed, creative, re-envisioning of a culture of equals.

As social justice activists, they researched. They evaluated. They took ownership of their own curiosity and identified what institutions needed to be questioned, what information needed to be gathered, what futures needed to be imagined.

So therein lies the value of curiosity in an unequal world.  

At times when our country has entered dark periods, whether the 1920s or 1950s, or 2020s, when many in power chose to silence learning and close minds, it was the questions and the questioners that often stopped the insanity.

Curiosity can propel acts of courage… and sometimes questions are acts of courage. From this lens, the lack of curiosity in our country today is a very real threat to our democracy. I’d argue that curiosity – no matter how impertinent, irreverent, and insubordinate – is not the danger, 

The real danger is incuriosity, when questions aren’t asked of leaders or liars. When our apathy turns to acquiescence and a complacency into complicity.

Walt Whitman put it succinctly in his Democratic Vistas when he warned, “Resist much, obey little. Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved. Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty.”

Much of what we see around us today can be framed in this context, at least for today’s speech.

If curiosity propels democratic imagination, and if powerful questions can change the course of history, then:

To whitewash history’s narratives is to criminalize questioning, 

To ban books is to make a war on wonder, 

To shutter libraries is to close minds;

To make gender identities illegal is a modern-day inquisition; 

To eliminate diversity is to negate our shared humanity;

And to demonize inquiry is to silence our right to interrogate democracy.

No, not our right. Our responsibility.

You know me well enough to know that I believe in the spirit of inquiry that has been integral to the democratic experience – the persistent questioning of authority, the ceaseless challenging of disinformation, and the unwavering interrogation of injustice and inequality.   

I have no doubt that each and every one of us needs to ask (there’s that verb again, ‘to ask’) to ask more of our ourselves, our workplaces, communities, and country. We need to ask…What is the reality? What can be done? What can we dream?

I hope as you walk out these doors today you consider yourselves passionate Antiochian scholar-practitioners who use purposeful curiosity to challenge society’s wrongs. I hope that you will 

Ask insubordinate questions, strategically. Inquire into wicked problems, relentlessly. Interrogate our fragile democracy, fearlessly. We cannot afford to be incurious. Not as human beings, nor as leaders, scholars or citizens.

I believe that as an Antioch PhD graduate, you will work tirelessly to create communities of the curious to transform our cities. You will use your insatiable curiosity to ignite an unjust world. You will creatively build a “new age of curiosity” to imagine a better tomorrow.