Useless Knowledge

A good friend printed on his Facebook page a list of clever Latin phrases that colleges might adopt for their institutions. On that list was one that stood out to me:

Pro scientia inutili
“For useless knowledge”

This, of course, is tongue in cheek and meant to make us smile, if not laugh outright. But I would like to make a case that this as what colleges and universities should aspire too. This is a motto any self-respecting college or university should embrace. We are focused far too much on utility in this country — to the point that if something is not found useful it is tossed aside. But some of the greatest ideas ever shared among humans were initially thought to be useless. Like the notion of human rights, for example. Or the notion that persons are ends in themselves — the root and branch of ethical behavior. Moreover, many of the things we treasure above all else are useless, things such as love and beauty, for example, not to mention the smell of burgers cooking on a barbecue or the taste of your favorite cold beverage on a hot summer’s day.

But, returning to the subject, the point is that the most valuable knowledge is useless knowledge. In any event, knowledge in and of itself is not what education is all about. On the contrary, most knowledge is a means to an end while education is what is left after we have forgotten all the “knowledge” we learned in school. Education is all about putting young people into possession of their own minds — as I have said again … and again. It’s about learning how to think. And that may or may not involve knowledge. At best, knowledge can lead one to think: as noted above; it is, or ought to be, a means to an end — even though seemingly useless.

America has shown itself repeatedly to be a country that denigrates not only useless knowledge but intellect itself. A fundamentalist preacher  recently noted on his radio show that educated women make the worst mothers. This is not only offensive to women, it is downright stupid. Moreover, it is an attack once again on intelligence. And as such it simply joins a long list of attacks against the development of the human mind that we find when looking back on American history.  I have often wondered where this suspicion of intelligence, this anti-intelligence, comes from. Were the first people who came to this country — often as outcasts from their homeland — the mindless dregs who were regarded as a burden on those who remained behind? One does wonder.

In many European countries intelligence is prized above all other human accomplishments. Teachers are regarded with respect and even admiration (witness tiny Finland where teaching positions are prized by the best and brightest). In America they are regarded with suspicion and distrust and relegated to the dustbins. “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.” And they find themselves at the bottom of the list of professional occupations: low pay and low esteem. We don’t pay those who want to help others learn enough to allow them to live comfortably. The brightest young people in this country as a rule do not aspire to teach. This, again, is because of the inherent distrust of the mind and the rejection out of hand of the notion that intelligence is something worthy of development. Teachers, like the things they teach, are also useless.

I generalize, of course. But it has been said by others much wiser and more widely read than I that ours is a country that has been from the outset anti-intellectual. Even our founding fathers who were among the most intelligent of those who made America their home — people like Thomas Jefferson — regarded usefulness as the prize to be achieved, not realizing that useless knowledge was what made folks like them stand out. They were, by and large, practical men with little patience for useless knowledge. They set the tone.

The liberal arts have always been useless. They are about acquiring the tools of intellectual growth, about learning how to learn and how to think. In this country they are dismissed as “elitist.”  As Robert Hutchins once said, however, the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers. They do not lead to practical results, but they force us to think and think again. Useless knowledge is about those things that we ponder and which make our minds grow and expand, enabling us to work through the plethora of information that passes for knowledge to those tiny insights that are valuable in and of themselves. Useless knowledge enables us to recognize fools and charlatans when we see them and makes us wise enough to vote into political office those who might actually be qualified for office and not merely able to pose as wise when they are actually quite stupid. It makes a human life worth living.

Usefulness is not what it is all about. On the contrary, useless knowledge is what it is all about — if our goal is to become as intelligent as possible. Think about it!

6 thoughts on “Useless Knowledge

  1. As an Artist and creative thinker…some days the “useless knowledge “ my brain has absorbed makes my head hurt. Unfortunately, all that “hurting” hasn’t made me wiser or richer. It has, however, made my world view frame by frame observations and a continuing slow-motion journey of colourful experiences.
    Am I thankful for my hard-sought education?
    Oh, yes…

    • Very few in my experience who have worked their way through “useless knowledge” to a broader awareness of what is going on around them would wish it otherwise.

  2. Well said, Hugh. Utilitarianism is a blight on civilization. The election of 2016 is all the evidence we need that “educated” voters have not learned to think for themselves or to see beyond their own selfish desires. What of the common good? Utilitarianism is a powerful tool for those who espouse authoritarianism. It looks like our friends in the UK have finally awakened to the danger posed by their newly-minted despotic PM and the doddering Queen who enables him with a rubber stamp. It is tragic when one considers the lives sacrificed in our democratic countries to win the right to vote only to see it surrendered to the well-heeled despots who care not a whit for “the people”.

  3. Hugh, I read the quote to my daughter from the radio show minister who said intelligent women make terrible mothers. She thought for a second and said simply, “I think he is saying he does not like intelligent women.” Very astute.

    I have written before about “Half the Sky,” by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristoff based on the Chinese proverb that women hold up half the sky. So countries and religions that treat women as chattel are competing in a world with only half their assets. So, the children of a family with an intelligent mother stand to be more educated than those who don’t. And, what happens when Dad leaves the family unit. By the way, my mother was a teacher AND very devout, so she would take issue with said minister. Keith

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