The passion of curiosity

Pool Location School near Hibbing, Minn.
The Pool Location school burned down in 1921, but that summer still crackled with curiosity as young Iron Rangers sought knowledge in new environs. (PHOTO: Aubin Studios, via Hibbing Historical Society)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

There is a crisis in local education that can be plainly seen by experts and laymen alike. It is a crisis of engagement, enrollment, and learning. Fueled (though not caused) by the COVID-19 pandemic, educators wrestle with questions of critical thinking and knowledge. Meantime, the drone of standardized testing grinds away at deeply distracted students and families.

We also face an even deeper local peril: the sustainability of our communities, schools and other institutions. As our old economy continues to contract with efficiency, automation, and consolidation, a strange new economy sits boxed in a hard plastic shell, too confounding to open much less understand.

Last Sunday, these twin predicaments could be found in one story printed in the Mesabi Tribune. Lee Bloomquist wrote that ten Iron Range school districts reported a loss of 700 students over the past year. For some districts, that’s a more than 5 percent drop in enrollment. This presents a critical challenge for sustaining local schools. I can attest that similar conditions persist at local community and technical colleges as well.

It’s not one reason but many that vex local public schools. Private schooling and homeschooling take a cut, as do online learning options. After the challenges of the last school year, some families sought the expertise that dedicated online schools offer. Furthermore, we’re coming off a sustained period of population contraction after the localized depression of the 1980s and ‘90s. 

This all might seem hopeless, but it’s not. A century ago, we could find plenty of reasons to despair. Having read local newspapers of that time in some depth, I can assure you that some people despaired plenty. Nevertheless, green shoots of hope still sprung.

In early September 1921 the schoolhouse at the Pool Location near Hibbing burned to the ground. Hundreds gathered at a distance to watch the flames consume the building, including most of the children who attended the school.

According to a Sept. 8, 1921 story in the Hibbing Daily News, as the crowd watched in stunned silence, one child could be heard to say, “No school tomorrow.” 

Indeed, the kids got a day off. But if they had hoped for a long vacation they would be sorely disappointed. Because the village of Hibbing was in the process of moving from the old townsite to the new one. The school district quickly made arrangements to bus the children to a vacant storefront in the ghostly remains of the old town. There, under bare walls for the next few months, students learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. 

Albert Einstein (IMAGE: Kadumago Conceptual Artist, Flickr CC-BY)

The previous spring a physicist made quite a stir with a new idea that few in this area had ever considered. Albert Einstein made his first appearance at New York in April 1921, the same year he would win the Nobel Prize. News of his theories on general relatively began filtering through newspapers across the United States, including here on the Mesabi Iron Range. 

Local newspaper editorials made light of the fact that they couldn’t figure out what Einstein was talking about, but the people were curious. The Hibbing Public Library said that Einstein’s theories were among the most popular questions they received that year, and books on physics simply could not be retained on the shelves for long. Before Google, curiosity could only find relief at the library.

These two century-old anecdotes remain relevant today. Iron Range school districts, like schools all over the U.S., spend a great deal of time focused on physical learning environments and technology. Meanwhile, our elected school boards aim to preserve institutions. This can sometimes overshadow what goes on inside those institutions. 

In this, education becomes a game of counting beans. Arbitrary measurements take precedent over inspiring the human mind.

Thus, the most important outcomes of this school year are neither the scores we see on standardized tests nor the results of the hockey season. These  high heat distraction obscure the glaring problem and its most feasible solution. 

We must cultivate curiosity for the world. Indeed, such talk has always drawn mockery and criticism from those unwilling to learn. Yet, for many on the Iron Range this idea lifted people out of poverty a century ago. It did the same for me just 25 years ago. This is the spirit that could turn an empty store into a laboratory for knowledge, and beckoned working men and women into an old-fashioned library in order to bend space and time.

How long it takes us to rekindle this kind of learning is relative to the importance we place upon the task. The resistance we encounter is not strictly financial; rather, it comes from within. Amid the chorus of naysaying and lament and the mocking smiley faces on Facebook, we find that any four walls can make an elite school if we teach and learn with the passion of curiosity.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 14, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Elanne Palcich says

    Thanks for writing this Aaron. Your ideas may be ahead of the current perceived notions, but you need to keep putting them out there.

  2. Good piece! I always notice that local debates about “education” are almost entirely about buildings, teacher pay and unions, enrollment and budgets….. All these are important, but rarely is much if anything said about the intellectual processes–going on in classrooms.

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