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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Please, Try to be Useless....


This video illustrates something I've been telling students lately: try to be useless.

That is, sometimes courses of study that seem worthless are actually the most valuable. This goes all the way back to Cardinal Newman's argument in The Idea of a University: there are the useful arts and then there are the liberal arts.

He doesn't mean this in a disparaging way. What is merely useful will not be supremely useful. It is useful to learn how to tie your shoe, but tying your shoe is a skill that has a very narrow use. What happens once everyone switches over to velcro? (I wish!) What happens when the neuroscience facts you memorized freshman year are disproved and replaced by junior year? The facts seemed useful at the time, but now they're useless. The most valuable thing was learning to think, memorize, and apply.

This is what Newman means. It's best to focus on fundamental, underlying elements of learning and self-improvement that can apply to everything. This is why, according to the video above, the seemingly useless study of philosophy is actually supremely useful (Listen, up parents! Do not be afraid when your child declares a philosophy major!) Studying philosophy develops reading, critical thinking, and debating skills. It stretches your mind, makes your a more flexible thinker, and forces you to explore the basic elements of thought. These skills are like basic training that can be applied to anything.

Learning how to think is more important than learning what to think. Process is more important than content. They're both important, no doubt. But more emphasis should be placed on the fundamentals of learning.

No one knows what line of work they'll end up with, when they might switch majors, jobs, or careers. Let the employer do the training. Training is specific to companies, specific to the moment, and is a never-ending process, subject to updates, overhauls, and changes in law. Small potatoes to the life-long learner. We need to create more of those.

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