”˜Useless’ fields of study are not without value
March 7, 2011 1:01 a.m.
It is not often that the artist is called upon to defend himself and his craft.
Such an occasion arose last week, when in the heat of all the hoopla surrounding the North v. South Campus debate, various remarks were leveled against my latte-sipping brethren and sistren.
An argument from a fellow columnist in defense of our northern abode soon gave way to a choleric string of attacks from readers of all stripes. And there is one point therein I am compelled to oppose ““ that the adjective “useless,” in describing a field of study, is a bad thing.
What is meant by “useless”? It is the charge that a major, minor or entire section of campus has little or no benefit to anything beyond itself. This is to say that a “useless” major will not provide a handsome paycheck, nor rid the world of cancer, nor construct the littlest microchip. To its detractors, it is a silly and expensive waste of time ““ a rather heavy criticism given to us hyperboreans.
Not surprisingly, this past decade brought with it a general increase in the number of science degrees conferred. Of course, both sides of our happy campus are home to a host of subjects studied for their own sake, whose function in academia is merely to increase the number of things we know.
On the flip side, future leaders of the world may find some practical benefit from both sides of Bruin Walk.
Of the top 10 majors ranked by The Princeton Review, all are defended with regards to potential career prospects. Even literature is made to look practical.
Yet the usefulness of things has never interested me greatly. Let us abandon the petty prejudice that treats “useful” and “valuable” as synonyms. How horribly narrow and boring is that bias? I dread the day that universities become little more than longer trade schools.
Nor do I wish to vindicate the arts by writing of their advantages.
I wish instead to defend from our naysayers the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, whichever side of campus, and without regard for such trifling cares as the eventual payoff.
Allow me to entertain a bit of science fiction. Imagine a world of maximum convenience: free from sickness, death, poverty, corruption, oppression, slow Internet and so forth. In other words: a world where all things useful have had their uses fulfilled.
There would be nothing left to do but to seek beauty, truth and the mere delight of discovery ““ for no better reason than the pleasures that they come with.
The impossibility of this imaginary place does not detract from the relevant point: that “useful” and “practical” things are only means to a separate end. They are good for what they bring.
Useless things, conversely, require no external justification. It is both needless and futile to validate that which is an end in itself.
From the coldly scientific to the dreamily artistic, the love of knowledge for knowledge’s sake abounds in any number of different disciplines. There is beauty in the prosody of Byron as there is charm in the anatomy of a whale; often do I detect the muse’s handiwork in the most elegant of mathematics.
Some of these boast greater real-world application, no doubt. But that is no good reason to trivialize what great wonders await the prodigal mind.
This is a research university, after all, with “useless” research aplenty. And our dear professors, who have transformed their impractical passions into personal profit, continue to impart their wisdom to students who do not wish to become teachers as well. The pleasures of the mind are rewarding in themselves.
In this age and in this time, there are many who will describe my pointless pursuit of knowledge as wasteful. To them I say, resoundingly: So be it! Decadence in beauty and indulgence in discovery ought never to be seen as valueless. There is supreme virtue in comprehending greatness wherever it is found.
I do not care to deprecate the benefits of useful things. One question, however, must be asked: Of what use is health, wealth, security, comfort, convenience? It is to better enable our enjoyment of life.
For this reason, it is terribly unjust to treat lightly the very things that enrich our lives ““ the knowledge that not only enables but gives to us pleasure. So let us order more lattes and with glee resume our pondering.