The Usefulness of “Useless” Knowledge

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Back in 1939, Alexander Flexner wrote an article in Harper’s magazine entitled The usefulness of useless knowledge. Flexner is a famous education reformer and founder and first director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Its faculty members include scholars such as Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, John von Neumann, and George Kennan. It was striking that the content of the article was still so timely after more than 75 years!

This is the opening paragraph:

usefulness of useless knowledge

After reading the article, there were two things that crept up and kept gnawing. First, the current Dutch State Secretary for Education, Sander Dekker, has been expressing a strong urge for applied research. In this he is not much different than those in high political positions in other countries. This is quite a popular thing to say in general and in this specific case, the State Secretary for Education and the Minister of Education have launched a competition (Onderwijs2032) so that ‘society’ can have a say in how to improve education. The government will have conversations with students, teachers, parents, schools, and other interested parties – note the absence of educational and learning scientists here – with the idea that these conversations then lead to an innovative curriculum and innovations in core objectives and learning outcomes.

Dutchies will also have the opportunity to express their thoughts on required scientific research; they will have a say in which studies should be prioritised for funding and execution (there was even a Facebook® vote to determine what research project should be funded in the field of medicine!).

In other words, the content and approach of the Dutch education system as well as scientific research needs to be determined through something similar to a political referendum. Imagine what would happen if we would to do the same for the setup of the national soccer team and their strategy! Oh wait, perhaps that already happened as the Dutch are out…

In one of the Dutch newspapers (Financiële Dagblad) it says: The choices made in the National Science Agenda will determine which science proposals will get funding. If knowledge institutions collaborate with commercial and community organisations as well as proposals that have an eye for valorisation (for example, translating scientific knowledge into a next level of products or services) will receive a far better rating. Hence, their chances of getting funding are much higher. According to the Dutch State Secretary for Education the societal “added value” of scientific research must be maximised, which is possible through education, valorisation, and economic applications. In other words, Mr. State Secretary Dekker is suggesting that science must be driven by thinking in terms of efficiency and utility.

Flexner starts his article over useless knowledge with an anecdote of a conversation that he had with George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak Company. Flexner asked Kodak who he thought was the most useful scientist in the world. Kodak answered “Gugleielmo Marconi”. Flexner’s response to this answer was rather surprising to Kodak. Flexner stated that, although the radio has added immense value to our lives, Marconi’s contribution to this was zero to nothing; a practicality. Flexner explained that all Marconi did was adding a final technical detail to what, to that point in time, was pure science. Scientists such as James Maxwell (mathematical calculations on magnetism and electricity) and Heinrich Hertz (theoretical physics research on electromagnetic waves) laid the foundations for Marconi’s final piece of cake. Maxwell and Hertz did not think “utility” or “application”; they studied ‘stuff’ based on pure curiosity! According to Flexner, “Hertz and Maxwell could invent nothing, but it was their useless theoretical work which was seized upon by a clever technician and which has created new means for communication, utility, and amusement by which men whose merits are relatively slight have obtained fame and earned millions”.

Flexner lists some additional examples in his article and then concludes:

“…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…Institutes of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute…to human welfare…”

In addition to the Dutch crowd sourcing approach to research and their focus on practical application and utility, the other thing that kept gnawing away was a recent article in the Times Educational Supplement, written by the notorious eduquack Sugata Mitra. He writes:

“…KNOWING IS an obsolete idea from a time when it was not possible to access or acquire knowledge at a moment of need. The idea of knowing assumes that the brain must be “primed” in advance for circumstances that may require knowledge. Just in case.”

He adds: “We don’t need to know until we need to know.” Whoever knows Johan Cruyff…it could have been one of his quotes. One famous one from Cruyff to get the idea: “If I wanted you to understand it, I would have explained it better!” Or Yogi Berra: “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”

Let’s go back to Flexner’s argument, namely that so-called useless knowledge is actually the foundation for further deeper and more creative thinking. Knowledge that at first glance might be perceived as useless is actually indispensable in that it enables us to book technical/technological, economic, and societal progress. Without such useless knowledge we wouldn’t even be able to recognise problems; let alone think about them or work towards a solution to them. For example, without knowledge we wouldn’t even recognise global warming; and therefore we wouldn’t even think about how we as individuals, society, scientists, and politicians could solve the matter.

Mitra doesn’t bring us further, but rather moves us backwards towards the Middle Ages when – due to a lack of knowledge – people thought that the sun orbited around the earth, that diseases were caused by humours (bodily fluids), that an eclipse of the sun was caused by the Gods and that sacrificing a virgin would bring it back.

Without all of this “useless” knowledge[1] it would be impossible to understand anything of what happens around us, to judge it, or to develop ourselves as individuals and societies. Also, last but not least, without this “useless” knowledge we wouldn’t be able to intellectually communicate about anything. The consequences would be devastating: stagnation and decline.

Stewart wrote[2] something to the effect of: Wisdom and knowledge are strongly connected. One is the complement of the other. Knowledge leads to wisdom and wisdom cannot exist without knowledge.

Steve Jobs once said: “Creativity is nothing but connecting things.” Replace the word things with knowledge and it would read: “Creativity is nothing but connecting knowledge.” However, according to Mitra this knowledge is superfluous. Why doesn’t he realise that without knowledge we will lose the ability to be creative! Maybe he lacks the necessary knowledge to see this.

As Charles Sumner, politician and leader of the movement against slavery in the US already stated:

“Without knowledge there can be no sure progress. Vice and barbarism are the inseparable companions of ignorance.”

Amen.

 

[1] Although we would love to discuss the relationship between knowledge and expertise, we won’t. After all, this is a blog and not a book chapter.

[2] John Stewart (1749-1822): The Revolution of Reason, or the Establishment of the Constitution of Things in Nature