VIA Brainpickings: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Here is a superb rejoinder to the advocates of a strictly utilitarian concept of education: Maria Popova’s post on the educational thought of Abraham Flexner’s The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (1939).

Flexner, a contemporary of John Dewey, wrote:

I have myself spent many years pleading that our schools should become more acutely aware of the world in which their pupils and students are destined to pass their lives. Now I sometimes wonder whether that current has not become too strong and whether there would be sufficient opportunity for a full life if the world were emptied of some of the useless things that give it spiritual significance; in other words, whether our conception of what is useful may not have become too narrow to be adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit.

I think one of the biggest gaps in any accountability scheme is how we evaluate the impact of our teaching or our research over significant periods of time.  We talk about “life-long learning” as a goal, but how can it be factored into an annual report?  Every experienced teacher knows that the effects of her teaching may take years to turn up (if at all?), but even this kind of time-span could be irrelevant when we talk about the longer-term effects of our research.  Flexner reminds us:

Over a period of one or two hundred years the contributions of professional schools to their respective activities will probably be found to lie, not so much in the training of men who may to-morrow become practical engineers or practical lawyers or practical doctors, but rather in the fact that even in the pursuit of strictly practical aims an enormous amount of apparently useless activity goes on. Out of this useless activity there come discoveries which may well prove of infinitely more importance to the human mind and to the human spirit than the accomplishment of the useful ends for which the schools were founded.

So how can these longer-term interests and concerns be brought into the picture when we discuss public higher education?



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