Usefulness of useless knowledge

The focus on things—fields of study, activities, careers, hobbies—being of value and worth doing only because of their monetary or immediate utility seems like a modern phenomenon. We see this with the emphasis on running education (and now government) like a business. We see this with the shift to “practical” majors (i.e., majors with a one-to-one correlation to your career, such as software engineering).

This approach to life devalues everything that cannot lead to immediate or near-term profits. Things are only worth doing, worth pursuing if they lead to money. Gone is doing things for the sake of doing them, whether for enjoyment, to satisfy an intellectual itch, or feed your soul with creative endeavors.

But actually, this is not a new phenomenon. Impractical pursuits—or useless knowledge—have perhaps always been under attack. Witness the article in the June/November 1939 issue of Harpers—”The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge“—by educational reformer and the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Abraham Flexner. (His article has been incorporated into a recent book, along with an essay by the current director of the Institute for Advanced Study.)

I heard about this article in passing while listening to a podcast and my ears pricked up. I just had to track down the article. As I read it, I was amazed at how current it seemed. As a humanities major, I perhaps am a bit sensitive to the jokes about people studying the humanities and ending up jobless or underemployed, such as the cab driver who has a PhD in philosophy. The idea is that the humanities (and now some non-humanities fields) are worthless because the study of them does not led to gainful employment (or at least employment in your field of study). But that assumes that the sole or main purpose of education is job training. This modern-day view of education is what used to be called vocational training—being trained in specific skills to do a specific job.

But back to Flexner. His focus is not so much on the humanities vs. non-humanities fields, but on theoretical vs. applied fields. He argues that things (theoretical research) that do not immediately seem beneficial actually do often end up producing benefit. He argues for doing things for the sheer joy, out of curiosity, for the desire to learn. Do things just because, without knowing what may come of it—for yourself or society at large.

The pursuit of “useless satisfactions” is actually useful. From useless endeavors comes utility. To prove this point, Flexner looks at scientific and “humanistic or spiritual” fields and provides examples where the pursuit of the useless ended up leading to the useful.

One such example was a conversation he had with George Eastman (of the Eastman Kodak Company fame). Mr. Eastman wanted to devote his wealth to promote “education in useful subjects”. To draw out what Eastman meant by useful, Flexner asked him “whom he regarded as the most useful worker in science in the world.” Marconi, Eastman answered, the inventor of the radio.

Flexner proceeded to explain how Marconi’s contribution to science wasn’t as important or useful as the work that he built upon. His useful invention made use of discoveries by others (Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz) who were not pursuing useful things but rather following interests or lines of inquiry without any thought of a specific application. It was research for research sake. If something useful came from it, great. If not, it benefited individual and collective knowledge. Marconi was merely the inventor who synthesized the “useless knowledge” of Maxwell and Hertz.

“…throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.” (“The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge”, p. 545)

Curiosity, learning, pursuing something just because it satisfies an intellectual or spiritual itch are things to be encouraged. An unfettered approach to intellectual or creative interests whether in an ivory tower, a research lab, concert symphony, or a garage should be pursued without deadlines or funding that has to justify end uses or immediate monetary benefit.

So the next time that people demand proof about the practical benefit of something—a line of theoretical research, art, music—before funding it or saving government programs from the axe, think about the usefulness of useless knowledge. Seemingly useless things often combine to produce useful things. Unrelated fields or activities that seem pointless from a practical, monetary perspective can turn out to produce quite lucrative outcomes.

At the very least, seemingly useless pursuits can enrich your soul and deepen your life experiences. If something useful comes from your seemingly useless pursuits, so much the better. But usefulness really isn’t the point. The pursuit of useless knowledge is.

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