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Review of Abraham Flexner's 'The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge'

“All eras in a state of decline and dissolution are subjective,” said Goethe in a moment of sagely grumbling about the poets and painters of the younger generation, who, he thought, confused wallowing in emotion for creativity. “Every healthy effort, on the contrary, is directed from the inward to the outward world.”

I didn’t make the connection with Svend Brinkmann’s book Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvment Craze until a few days after writing last week’s column about it. One recommendation in particular from the Danish author’s anti-self-help manual seems in accord with Goethe’s admonition. As Brinkmann sees it, the cult of self-improvement fosters a kind of bookkeeping mentality. We end up judging experiences and relationships “by their ability to maximize utility based on personal preferences -- i.e. making the maximum number of our wishes come true.” The world becomes a means to the ego’s narrow ends, which is no way to live.

Besides offering a 21st-century guide to the Stoic ethos of disinvestment in the self, Brinkmann encourages the reader to rediscover the world in all its intrinsic value -- its fundamental indifference to anybody’s mission statement. How? By spending time in museums and forests:

“A museum is a collection of objects from the past (near or distant), e.g. art or artifacts that say something about a particular era or an aspect of the human experience. Obviously, you learn a lot from a museum visit -- but the greatest joy lies in just reveling in the experience with no thought of how to apply the knowledge and information. In other words, the trick is to learn to appreciate things that can’t be ‘used’ for some other function....

Similarly, a walk in the woods gives us a sense of being part of nature and an understanding that it shouldn’t be seen as consisting of resources that exist merely to meet human needs and desires. ... There are aspects of the world that are good, significant, and meaningful in their own right -- even though you derive nothing from them in return.”

Making similar points from a quite different angle is The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by Abraham Flexner (1866-1959), the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, in an edition from Princeton University Press with a long introduction by the institute’s current director, Robbert Dijkgraaf.

The essay giving the book its title first appeared in Harper’s magazine in October 1939 -- a few months into the New York World’s Fair (theme: The World of Tomorrow) and just a few weeks into World War II. “I [am] pleading for the abolition of the word ‘use,” Flexner wrote, “and for the freeing of the human spirit.” It must have seemed like one hell of a time for such an exercise. But the essay’s defense of the Ivory Tower was tough-minded and far-sighted, and Dijkgraaf’s introduction makes a case for Flexner as a major figure in the history of the American research university whose contribution should be remembered and revived.  

The germ of The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge was a memorandum Flexner wrote as executive secretary of the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1921.The principles it espouses were also expressed in his work bringing Albert Einstein and other European academic refugees to the Institute at Princeton in the early 1930s.The essay defends “the cultivation of beauty ... [and] the extension of knowledge” as “useless form[s] of activity, in which men [and, as he acknowledges a few sentences earlier, women] indulge because they procure for themselves greater satisfactions than are otherwise available.”

But the impact of Flexner’s argument does not derive primarily from the lofty bits. He stresses that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has in fact shown itself already to be a powerful force in the world -- one that the ordinary person may not be able to recognize while swept up in “the angry currents of daily life.” The prime exhibits come from mathematics (Maxwell’s equations or Gauss’s non-Euclidian geometry took shape decades before practical uses could be found for them), though Flexner also points to the consequential but pure curiosity-driven work of Michael Faraday on electricity and magnetism, as well as Paul Ehrlich’s experiments with staining cellular tissue with dye.

“In the end, utility resulted,” Flexner writes, “but it was never a criterion to which [researchers’] ceaseless experimentation could be subjected.” Hence the need for institutions where pure research can be performed, even at the expense of pursuing ideas that prove invalid or inconsequential. “[W]hat I say is equally true of music and art and of every other expression of the untrammeled human spirit,” he adds, without, alas, pursing the point further.

The untrammeled human spirit requires funding in any case. Although written towards the end of the Great Depression -- and published ten years to the month after the stock market crash -- The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge reads like a manifesto for the huge expansion of higher education and of research budgets in the decades to follow.

Flexner could point to the Institute for Advanced Study with justified pride as an example of money well-spent. He probably corrected the page proofs for his essay around the same time Einstein was writing his letter to President Roosevelt, warning that the Germans might be developing an atomic bomb. And as Robbert Dijkgraaf reminds us in his introduction, another Flexner appointee was the mathematician John von Neumann, who “made Princeton a center for mathematical logic in the 1930s, attracting such luminaries as Kurt Godel and Alan Turing.” That, in turn, led to the invention of an electronic version of something Turing had speculated about in an early paper: a machine that could be programmed to prove mathematical theorems.   

“A healthy and balanced ecosystem would support the full spectrum of scholarship,” Dijkgraaf writes, “nourishing a complex web of interdependencies and feedback loops.” The problem now is that such a healthy and balanced intellectual ecosystem is no less dependent on a robust economy in which considerable amounts of money are directed to basic research -- without any pressing demand for a return on investment. “The time scales can be long,” he says, “much longer than the four-year periods in which governments and corporations nowadays tend to think, let alone the 24-hour news cycle.”

That would require a culture able to distinguish between value and cost. Flexner’s essay, while very much a document from eight decades ago, still has something to say about learning the difference. 

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Reflections on the continuing importance of sabbaticals

A sabbatical is a privilege that everyone should defend and seek out, not something to be eliminated where it still exists, argues Christopher Schaberg.

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Iowa Bill Would Force 'Partisan Balance' in Hiring

It’s only been a month since an Iowa lawmaker proposed ending tenure at the state’s public institutions, and two weeks since state legislators published a bill that would gut collective bargaining for faculty members. Now another legislator wants to enforce what he calls “partisan balance” among Iowa’s faculty members. Iowa Republican Senator Mark Chelgren’s bill would require that no professor or instructor be hired if his or her most recent party affiliation would “cause the percentage of the faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by 10 percent” the percentage of the faculty belonging to the other dominant party. Politically undeclared professors would not be included in the tally.

Chelgren wants the state’s commissioner of elections to provide voter registration data to colleges and universities once a year to help enforce his plan. It’s no secret that the bill would likely adversely affect Democrats, since academics tend to swing to the political left. Others have criticized what they call academe's lack of "intellectual" or "ideological" diversity, but Chelgren's proposal takes such concerns to another level. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday, including about what he'd do if swaths of professors took advantage of the ‘no party’ loophole. There’s already been some negative reaction to the bill, with the liberal political blog Iowa Starting Line calling it an “ideological litmus test.”

The North Carolina Senate on Monday night tabled a similar amendment regarding the University of North Carolina System, The Charlotte Observer reported. It would have required tenure-track and tenured faculty members to “reflect the ideological balance of the citizens of the state,” so that no campus “shall have a faculty ideological balance of greater or less than 2 percent of the ideological balance” of North Carolinians.

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The questionable entrepreneurship mania on college campuses (essay)

Over the last decade or so, universities around the country have been tripping over one another to see who can slap the word “entrepreneurial” on the most things on their campuses the fastest. Entrepreneurial studies curricula and majors, business incubators, entrepreneurial centers, on and on -- entrepreneurial efforts have sprung up faster than the “innovate and disrupt” start-ups scattered about Silicon Valley whom they seem to desperately want to imitate.

This “Silicon Valleyization” of the university can be seen in places like Florida State University, which recently received a record $100 million to open the Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship, or at Rice University, which last year announced the formation of an “entrepreneurial initiative” to transform the university into an “entrepreneurial university.” Other institutions -- such as Emerson College, the University of Hartford and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell -- have also joined the entrepreneurial arms race with their own centers and curricula.

For advocates of the entrepreneurial university, such moves mark a more full alignment of higher education with the needs of the new economy. Universities are finally recognizing the central role that they now must play in spurring “endogenous growth” in the highly competitive global market, where innovation determines national, state and individual winners and losers. They are finally coming down from the ivory tower and lining up their curricula and research to meet that need. For critics, however, such developments represent yet another chapter in the capturing of the university by particular economic interests -- and a further loss of autonomy and intellectual integrity, as institutions mindlessly chase the latest fad and buzz meme.

While the entrepreneur as a particular type of economic actor in the market economy has been around for some time, entrepreneurialism as a full-blown social and cultural movement is much newer. If we situate entrepreneurialism as a historically distinct social phenomenon, or perhaps as a post-Bretton Woods economic model, it contains several assumptions about society, politics and markets that largely go unacknowledged in the frenzy to create the entrepreneurial society and the enterprising university to accompany it.

First is the profound shift from a more organized style of the market economy -- with large corporations, unionized labor, slow growth, steady-state capital and a welfare-oriented state -- to a more disorganized one composed of start-ups, flexible labor, erratic growth, impatient capital and a market-oriented state. In the newer, churning model of the market economy, the entrepreneur -- personified in cultural and political heroes like Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg, rather than the corporate manager or professional -- becomes the central new cultural icon.

One of the things that this unceasing push for entrepreneurial innovation as a driving force of economic growth dismisses or ignores is the actual destructive part of creative disruption. Creative disruption seems fine as long as it is other people whose lives are disrupted rather than your own. This view is often callously unconcerned with the harm that can be generated by disruption for the sake of disruption or the mantra that all innovation is progress. Here, in the mold of the economist Joseph Schumpeter and the Harvard University management gurus Clayton Christensen and Michael Porter, all disruptions are ultimately positive and all innovations are advancements. The market will miraculously, fairly and brutally sort out any lumps in the end. What disrupters yearn for is an always roiling and never resting society generated by people in continuous struggling with one another to provide the next best thing and “strike it rich.”

As Virginia Heffernan recently described it, such innovators compose a “sneakered overclass -- whose signature sport is to disrupt everything, from Ikea furniture to courtship.” They embody the religiously inspired dream of heavenly redemption, the modernist desire of continuous progress and “lotto fever” rolled into one. It is unclear, however, how far such a model can actually extend. How much innovation and disruption does the world need? Or, more important, how much can it actually take?

Second, entrepreneurialism as an idealized economic model promotes a rather distinct type of asocial, social Darwinist, “go it alone” mentality where the single, self-interested individual is seen as solely responsible for his or her successes. Here, even when philanthropy happens, it is ultimately designed for self-interest, as with Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC.

Even with the rhetoric of Google-style teamwork aside, the entrepreneurial model celebrates the ideal of the lone-wolf innovator who works hard, charts their own course and “defies the odds.” It is the American mythology of rugged individualism recast for the jobless age of the precariat, forever-flexible labor and the post-welfare state.

In doing so, this new economic model passes off social inequality as just the normal and inevitable ebb and flow of winners and losers in a free-flowing economy that is in constant flux -- and one that people need to adapt to rather than try to change. If you work hard enough, innovate and adapt to the market, you are entitled to reap the rewards. Those who cling to the collective protection of unions or change movements, or even the left-behind world of tradition, are but mindless sheep who lack the imagination to think for themselves and adapt. If you fail in your endeavors, you need to readapt and reinnovate in order to make your way again.

As on the TV show Shark Tank, the swirling and hungry accumulated venture capital of those “who have already made it” is there waiting to provide for newbies with the right stuff. Surviving and prospering are strictly by your own fruition. Yet all this ignores not only the highly likelihood of failure in these start-ups (90 percent, according to Forbes magazine) but also the social costs of living in a world composed of a handful of wealthy winners and scores of poor losers chumming up the shark-tank economy.

Third, implicit in the romantic idealization of the entrepreneur is the neoliberal idea of a limited pro-business government. Rather than expecting government to level things out a bit through progressive taxation or some other modest modes of redistribution -- or through various social services such as public education -- the new economic model promotes a government that is entrepreneurial, too. This enterprising government doesn’t protect people from the market as in the social democratic model but rather forces even more marketization onto them.

People must be coerced (or, in the more polite terms of behavioral economics, “nudged”) by government to “have grit and determination,” “manage their own retirements and health care,” “have positive affect” and “be responsible.” They must be calculating, self-interested and self-promotional, even if they don’t want to be. Responsibility will, in the words of former British Prime Minster David Cameron, finally force people “to ask the right questions of themselves.”

What all this means is not that entrepreneurialism is necessarily a bad thing when taken in moderation and seen within the light of a larger political economy. We can certainly acknowledge the important contributions of the loads of small businesses and innovations built on entrepreneurial principles. But an entire society or university based solely or largely on those principles is rather problematic and limiting.

Universities should be leery of aligning their curricula and research just to meet the needs of the entrepreneur. It is one thing for a higher education institution to recognize entrepreneurialism as one particular economic form but quite another to become an entrepreneurial university. Universities are -- or should be -- like the economy and society themselves: too multidimensional to remake themselves into any one particular cause of the moment.

Steven C. Ward is a professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University.

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TV personalities Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran, Daymond John and Kevin O’Leary Discuss ‘Shark Tank’ at Build Studio.
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How to teach students about thorny issues without insinuating your own views (essay)

Teaching Today

In today's political environment, how can professors challenge students to make sense of a changing world without imposing their own value-based judgments on classroom discussions? Jo-Ellen Pozner suggests some approaches.

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Brief Suspension Ends for Creighton Law Professor

Kenneth Melilli, a popular tenured faculty member at Creighton University's law school, was suspended from Wednesday through Friday after an argument with an associate dean, The Omaha World-Herald reported. Melilli was suspended after the law dean consulted the human resources department about what he viewed as a threat. Many other faculty members said that there was no reason to suspend the professor and that -- in cases where suspension of faculty members may be warranted -- it is the faculty who should review the circumstances. Faculty members said that only the university's president can make an emergency suspension. Late Friday, Melilli issued a statement Friday indicating that he had been reinstated and that differences had been resolved.

 

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A Ph.D. prepares you for the multitasking the work world demands (essay)

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Contrary to popular and judgmental opinion, your doctoral experience is some of the best real-world working experience you can get, writes Briana Mohan.

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Advice Newsletter publication date: 
Thursday, March 2, 2017
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Study suggests university presses publish fewer humanities books

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Study suggests university presses are publishing fewer books in the humanities. Experts say the publishing industry is facing more significant changes.

Hundreds of Scientists Rally in Boston

Hundreds of scientists, some in lab coats, held a rally in Boston Sunday to draw attention to their concerns about the Trump administration's policies. Speakers and signs criticized those in the administration who deny that climate change is real, who question the collection and distribution of data on science and other policies. Photos are from social media posts about the rally. More can be found a #standforscience. The rally comes as some scientists are planning a national march for science in Washington.

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Presidential Historians Rank the Presidents

President Lincoln held on to his first place slot as the best president of the United States in C-SPAN's third survey of presidential historians. He was followed by Presidents Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. President Lincoln also was ranked first in the two previous surveys, in 2009 and 2000.

The survey only considers former presidents so this was the first one in which President Obama was included. He ranked 12th, just behind President Wilson and ahead of President Monroe.

 

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