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What I'm Reading: ‘The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge’

April 23, 2017

Brian Rosenberg
Abraham Flexner, founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J., wrote an essay in 1939 titled "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge." His essay has recently been republished as a short book of the same title (Princeton University Press, 2017), which also contains a companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the institute’s current director.

Mr. Flexner makes two points that seem to me particularly important right now, especially for policy makers thinking about higher education in the United States. One is that it is impossible to predict what research will turn out to be "useful" and therefore it’s foolish to try; some of the most important discoveries in the history of science have been the fruits of work that began with no clear practical application.

The second point is equally applicable to the arts, sciences, and humanities: The fact that work in those areas brings "satisfaction to an individual soul bent upon its own purification and elevation is all the justification that they need," and is the most fundamental justification for the processes of instruction and research.

Oh, and Mr. Flexner makes one further point worth noting now as colleges struggle to respond to new restrictions on immigration: "In the face of the history of the human race, what can be more silly or ridiculous than likes and dislikes founded upon race or religion?"

Ridiculous indeed.

Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.