The Usefulness of Useless Education


John Ewing
Mathematician and President of Math for America

07/31/2017 02:35 pm ET

In 1939, on the eve of a war that would kill over 60 million people, in the aftermath of a worldwide depression, and during a time when humanity was understandably focused on practical matters, Harper’s Magazine published a slim essay by Abraham Flexner entitledThe Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. Flexner outlined his philosophy for the Institute for Advanced Study and, as it turned out, for much of American scientific research during mid-20th century.

Flexner’s philosophy was based on two ideas. First, that even in times of tumult “poets and artists and scientists have ignored the factors that would, if attended to, paralyze them.” Even though intellectual pursuits might seem frivolous, they are essential to the human spirit. His second idea challenged conventional wisdom: “The pursuit of these useless satisfactions proves unexpectedly the sources from which undreamed-of utility is derived.” Even though these intellectual pursuits might seem useless, they often turn out to be surprisingly useful—perhaps the best path to useful knowledge. He provided evidence of this last point by describing examples of research that led to society-changing applications, yet was inspired by curiosity alone. Flexner believed that “the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past.” He was right.

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge was recently republished along with a companion essay, The World of Tomorrow by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the current director of the Institute for Advanced Study. Dijkgraaf’s essay amplifies Flexner’s, frames the argument in modern terms, and provides many more examples. The two essays are a powerful, poetic expression of scientific wisdom, and they provide an especially timely reminder today. American investment in research has declined as a fraction of GDP, and basic research—often seen as the ultimate useless knowledge—has declined the most. Industry and government are increasingly focused on practical research, meant to produce immediate benefits. They have forgotten Flexner.

While Flexner’s and Dijkgraaf’s essays are about research, they apply equally well to education. Like research, Americans today seem to favor practical education. They see education as career training. They view the process of education as labor rather than craftsmanship. They believe teaching is something done to children rather than with them. And they believe success can be measured by tests of facts and skills, emphasizing the immediately useful. Flexner would surely object to all these beliefs.

On the simplest level, Flexner’s essay is a plea for the liberal arts. In our career-minded society, intellectual pursuits like poetry, philosophy, and literature are dismissed as frivolous. Last year, Kentucky’s governor, Matthew Bevin, grumbled to reporters: “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.” Bevin is not alone. Governor Rick Scott of Floridacomplained earlier that his state didn’t need more anthropologists: “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs.“ Similar comments were made by the governors of North Carolina and Wisconsin. Even the Obama administration proposed a system to rank universities based on the jobs of graduates.

But Flexner also asks us to think differently about career-oriented subjects. He reminds us that math and science are not only skills but also profound questioning—a way to satisfy our curiosity about the universe, real and imagined, asking what and how and to what purpose. Are math and science useful? Of course they are, sometimes. But it is not especially useful to wonder what happens inside a black hole or how life began on Earth or whether 11! + 1 is prime. Like poetry, music, and art these questions inspire people—not because they are useful but because they enrich our souls.

Research and education share something deeper still. Flexner and Dijkgraaf point out that the process of discovery cannot be tamed. It’s unruly, often serendipitous, and frequently surprising. The quest for knowledge is best driven by intense curiosity rather than utility. It requires not only structure but also passion. And as Flexner pointed out, what seems useless today frequently turns out to be exactly what one needs tomorrow.

Education is the same. Of course education provides career skills, but like research, it is more than useful facts and skills. Students need to explore because they are themselves curious. They need to develop a thirst for learning. They need to be excited and passionate about knowledge. They need to learn unencumbered by the demands of utility.

Many modern reformers will object. We must be practical, they will say. We must prepare our children for careers. We must teach useful things. Here is where Flexner’s essay is the most relevant, for when society is in tumult—when careers repeatedly change, new professions continually arise, and jobs are most unpredictable—creating curious, inspired, lifelong learners turns out to be the most useful education of all. A romantic poem, a mathematical puzzle, a story from ancient history… Plato, Shakespeare, Rousseau … the big bang, Neanderthals, and Bach… all are “useless.” Yet they often turn out to be exactly what one needs tomorrow.

Alas, in writing about research, Dijkgraaf laments: “In today’s metric-and goal-fixated culture, how can we meaningfully convey the ‘usefulness of useless knowledge?’”

We face an even greater challenge to convey this for education.

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