Monday, April 17, 2017
The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge – Abraham Flexner (1939)
One of the most disheartening developments in education in my lifetime has been the emphasis placed on teaching students only the knowledge and subjects that have practical, or “useful,” content. Every year more and more people want their kids to study only the fields in which a great salary is guaranteed. Learning for learning’s sake is frowned upon by helicopter parents who push their kids to fit a predetermined mold. This is a huge disservice to the students. One of the greatest advantages of a University education used to be that you learned how to educate yourself for the rest of your life. This was what a well-rounded education was to provide. Critical thinking skills, deep curiosity about the world, a variety of experience and wisdom from a wide field of human intellectual endeavors, and the ability to be a well-rounded adult were all worthy goals in and of themselves, without regard to future employ-ability or salary. It is quite eye-opening to read Abraham Flexner’s essay from a 1939 issue of Harpers Magazine. He was confronted by the same problem 80 years ago.
I have never read a better argument for letting students, artists, researchers, and scientists explore anything and everything that may cross their minds, regardless of whether it applies to their respective titles or fields of study. Mr. Flexner explores the many fields deemed “useless” and finds that in each and every case, these useless ideas or curiosities either contribute greatly to the well-being of humanity as a whole (as in the case of the arts, music, and literature) or they end up adding another piece of knowledge to the vast amount collectively gathered by humanity, to be filed away until some other curious person finds it and uses that knowledge to create a new mechanism, or technology, or even just a new use for something already existing. There is no way to determine what field of study will lead to something “useful,” which is the whole reason that nothing a human is curious about is actually “useless.”
Mr. Flexner provides examples from various fields, each a seemingly unimportant exploration by a human mind that turns out to shine a light on a previously unknown corner of knowledge. He cites the then very current issues arising from totalitarian fascist states in Germany and Italy curtailing “frivolous sciences” and “useless” explorations. This led to many of the most genius humans on the planet to make their way to the United States, where they could join places like the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. This institute was solely dedicated to the search for knowledge and had such a minimal infrastructure that any one person could cooperate and learn from any other, allowing geniuses in science and the humanities to explore wherever their curiosity led them. Learning itself is what was cultivated.
I have always been intellectually curious about nearly everything in the world around me. There are many people who think that specialization is the true mark of genius or dedication, or intellectual rigor. These people, while they may achieve much, are missing out on the whole picture. I personally am an artist. I paint and draw and I love to study art. I am also a hardcore music fanatic. These two fields are not mutually exclusive to most people. I am also a deep, deep lover of all things scientific, especially the field and history of Physics. In this case, countless people cannot fathom that a human can be artistically inclined and scientifically inclined and enjoy both equally. I feel that, beyond the pure joy of learning itself, my scientific knowledge informs my art, and my art knowledge informs my scientific curiosities. I am also a hardcore sports fanatic, especially my beloved American Football and all my Houston, Texas sports teams. I have been ridiculed by sports people who do not think I am a “true fan” because art is not for jocks, and I have been ridiculed by the arts crowds for showing up to a gallery wearing a Texans jersey. These close-minded fools will never understand, and they will never learn, until they decide to explore what intrigues them without the fear of ridicule by the people in your chosen peer group. If only this great essay by Mr. Abraham Flexner was required reading in the schools. Share it with someone that has been stifled in their curiosity. It may change a life.
(This essay can be downloaded in PDF format from Harpers Magazine here: https://library.ias.edu/files/UsefulnessHarpers.pdf )