- Uselessness:A Panegyric
"It is completely inappropriate for magnanimous and free people to be always asking what use something is."—Aristotle1
"You know, we don't need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It's a great degree if people want to get it, but we don't need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. That's what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on. Those type of degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job."—Florida Governor Rick Scott2
"I'm looking at legislation right now . . . which would change the basic formula in how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges. It's not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs."—North Carolina Governor Patrick Mccrory3
I care to argue for a thesis which appears to me to be so self-evidently true that it has become obscure. This self-evident truth is that studying useless things is a necessary component of any educational system that seeks to build character and hence citizenship. Useful, vocational job training is all well and good. There is certainly a proper place for it. But the contemporary [End Page 236] prejudice against the useless obscures the value of studying the useful just as insidiously as it obscures the value of studying the useless.
Work can build character, at least aspects of character. This I do not want to deny. But for a human being to live a good life one needs more than the useful: more than work and also more, as we will see, than amusement or play. Likewise, to be a good citizen one needs to be more than a good worker, more than a cog in the machine. One needs the critical thinking and critical imagining skills fostered by engaging with the useless, which can be fully developed only through such engagement.
I know that this thesis, as self-evident as I take it to be, will not appear self-evident to the Rick Scotts and Patrick McCrorys of the world, nor to those well-meaning parents who impress upon their children the need to learn a vocation. It is those voices which have been driving the vocationalist turn in higher education that emphasizes 'professional' degrees and disparages the study of philosophy, English literature, anthropology, history, political science and other useless subject matters. The oft heard refrain, 'what does one do with a degree in X?' betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature and goal of education. My own standard reply is, 'Anything one might want to do', a shorthand way of suggesting, gently, that the question is misconceived. What one should say, were one more honest and less tactful, is that a degree in X (substitute your own favorite useless subject matter) doesn't prepare you to do anything at all, but that to think of education as primarily preparing you for a life of doing, where doing is understood vocationally, is deeply wrongheaded. More honest still, but needing explication, is that the only way to attain real success in doing is to learn to live well when not doing.
Long ago, Aristotle addressed precisely these issues, and since what I am saying is nothing new, it seems appropriate to turn to such a long dead thinker to help me say it. In his day too there were the frogs in the swamp, croaking for the useful, and, typically, Aristotle gave them their due.
Investigation of the education we see around us results in confusion, since it is not at all clear whether people should be trained in what is useful for life, in what conduces to virtue, or in something out of the ordinary. For all of these proposals have acquired some advocates.4
Nevertheless, Aristotle makes it quite clear which of these options he thinks we ought to reject. [End Page 237]
That children should be taught those useful things that are really necessary, however, is not unclear. But it is evident that they should not be taught all...