The Value of Useless Knowledge


IN conversation with a learned friend lately, our talk ran on various definitions of culture, and on the fact that for one reason or another we found them all unsatisfactory. This led us to ponder the notion that culture is one of those things that are perhaps better understood by not being too closely defined, like certain stars that become visible only when one looks a little away from them. We recalled the profound observation of Joubert, that ‘it is not hard to know God, provided one does not trouble oneself to define Him.’ There are many such matters, an astonishing number when one comes to count them up; astonishing, too, when one remarks how competent our working knowledge of them may be, notwithstanding our best definitions of them are so incompetent.

In regard to these matters, Truth shows herself the unscrupulous flirt that her devoted lover Ernest Renan finally declared her to be. A direct approach to her, a direct drive upon her coquettish reserve, is fatal to one’s chances. A teasing wench, she lures one on by every imaginable charm, but at the moment one thinks to take her by force she slips out. of one’s grasp and is gone. Indeed, one never succeeds with her completely by any art of seduction; she is of the Rommany breed, and is bound to break one’s heart at last, like Tchertapkhanov’s gypsy Masha. One must make up one’s mind to that. But, again like Masha, each time one approaches her indirectly, tentatively, now by this side and now by that, never overpressing her coyness, she will make some little concession; and at the end of a lifetime of devotion one finds that the sum of her concessions is really considerable — not what one hoped for, certainly, but a fair reward, though platonic. One thankfully sorts them over and assembles them in terms of definition, though well aware that one’s formulas are partial and provisional, and that one can never make them more than that.


It is perhaps only in this humble fashion that one may attempt a definition of culture; first of culture as a process, and then of culture as a possession. Concerning culture as a process, one would say that it means learning a great many things and then forgetting them; and the forgetting is as necessary as the learning. Diligent as one must be in learning, one must be as diligent in forgetting; otherwise the process is one of pedantry, not culture. The trouble with the pedant is not that he has learned too much, for one can never do that, but that he has not forgotten enough. In the view of culture, the human spirit is somewhat like the oldfashioned hectograph, which had to be laid aside for a day or so after each use, to let the surface impression sink down into the gelatine pad. The pedant’s learning remains too long on the surface of his mind; it confuses and distorts succeeding impressions, thus aiding him only to give himself a conventional account of things, rather than leaving his consciousness free to penetrate as close as possible to their reality, and to see them as they actually are.

It would appear, though, that half the process of culture has been neglected in practice; or, worse than that, it has been disallowed and reprehended. Learning has always been made much of, but forgetting has always been deprecated; therefore pedantry has pretty well established itself throughout the modern world at the expense of culture. To cite perhaps the most conspicuous instances, it is no trouble to see how thoroughly pedantry has pervaded the world’s practice of politics and economics. Nietzsche made the interesting observation that in the drama of politics the comic rôle has always been played by professors. This is very true, but when one considers the way in which the public affairs of most countries have been managed for the past two decades, one perceives that professors have no monopoly of pedantry. It is hard to believe that the drama of politics could have degenerated more swiftly and hopelessly into a roaring farce if the curtain had been rung up twenty years ago with nothing but professors in the cast. Pedantry pervades economics, dealing with them as it does with politics, by policies of sheer prestidigitation. The upshot of pedantry in politics is government by sleight of hand; its upshot in economics is a régime of extemporization. It cannot be otherwise, because the essence of pedantry is to satisfy oneself wholly with a limited, partial, and conventional account of things, then to assume that other people should and will satisfy themselves wholly with the same account, and then to become puzzled and indignant when it turns out that they do not.

The essence of culture is the exact opposite of all this; and here one may see where the importance of the second step in the process comes in. When the smart boy from the East Side or the farm girl from the Mississippi Valley knocks at the gate of the college and declares for culture, one should say, ‘Youngster, this is a hard business that you are proposing, and a very long business. Are you sure it is what you want to undertake? Culture may not be quite what you think it is. The essence of culture is never to be satisfied with a conventional account of anything, no matter what, but always instinctively to cut through it and get as close as you can to the reality of the thing, and see it as it actually is. Culture’s methods are those of exercising the consciousness in a free and disinterested play over any object presented to it, unchecked by prepossession and uncontrolled by formula. This exercise will keep you very busy for many years. In preparation for it, you must spend a great deal of time in learning a great many things, and then you must spend more or less time in forgetting them. Are you up to it? If you think you can manage the learning (for it must be actual learning — we shall see to that if you come here), what sort of fist do you think you can make at the forgetting? In any case, now that you have some idea of what it really is that you say you are after, does the thing strike you as worth trying? Do you believe you are equal to it?’


Our definition, however, is not quite explicit enough, because it does not specify the kind of knowledge that the process of culture contemplates. We all know that useful knowledge gains value by being remembered, and loses value by being forgotten; and it has most value when best remembered. Useless knowledge, on the contrary, gains value only as it is forgotten; and the point to be brought out is that useless knowledge alone is the concern of culture. Our definition, then, may be made more precise — perhaps as precise as any that can be made — if we put it that culture, considered as a process, means acquiring a vast deal of useless knowledge, and then forgetting it.

Perhaps the prevalence of pedantry may be largely accounted for by the common error of thinking that, because useful knowledge should be remembered, any kind of knowledge that is at all worth having should be remembered too. By overlooking the fact that useless knowledge, if properly forgotten, has value, the common assumption is that the only kind of knowledge one should try to get is the kind that must be remembered. Here one has a crow to pick with the universities for promoting this error, for this is the ground of resentment against their wholesale adoption of ideals and methods that belong naturally and properly to the scientific school; and this too is the ground of particular resentment against their taking the scientific school into full partnership as a member of the academic organization. The university’s undiscriminating attitude toward learning, its failure to establish a clear line between useful and useless knowledge, its misapprehension of values and its consequent misdirection of responsibility — all this the believer in culture is bound to regard as most unfortunate.

For quid Athenis et Hierosolyma? The business of a scientific school is the dissemination of useful knowledge, and this is a noble enterprise and indispensable withal; society cannot exist unless it goes on. The university’s business is the conservation of useless knowledge; and what the university itself apparently fails to see is that this enterprise is not only noble but indispensable as well, that society cannot exist unless it goes on. The attitude of the university being what it is, one scarcely sees how the exceeding great value of useless knowledge is ever going to be properly appraised; and this is a hard prospect for the student of civilization to contemplate.

We all remember Mr. Stephen Leacock’s account of his visit to Oxford, and his delightful portrayal of Oxford as the complete and perfect conservator of useless knowledge; a place where professors never lecture but by request, and then wretchedly, — Mr. Leacock was told that some had not lectured for thirty years, — where tutors seem to do nothing much but smoke, and students seem to do little but live in mouldy mediæval quarters, eat food cooked in Henry VIII’s kitchen, and sleep in an unwholesome mess of age-old ivy. We recall his sly pretense of puzzlement when he compared the ways of Oxford with those of the universities that he was acquainted with on this side of the Atlantic, and finally his reluctant admission that somehow, dead against every conceivable possibility, Oxford ‘gets there,’ and his dark suspicion that it will continue to get there for many generations to come. No one in America knows the value of useless knowledge better than Mr. Leacock, and his fascinating sketch of Oxford makes it clear that the business of a university is to do what for centuries Oxford has been doing, and to turn out the kind of human produce that for centuries Oxford has been turning out.

But the traditional faculties of a university are those of Literature, Law, Theology, and Medicine; and by their professional side, the side first presented to the intending practitioner, the mastery of these subjects is a matter of science, a matter of absorbing much useful knowledge. True; but ‘the four learned professions’ are very old, they have a long and heavily documented tradition, and in the course of their history they have laid all sorts and kinds of useless knowledge under continuous contribution, thus building up a thick accretion which, for the purposes of culture, is most valuable. It seems a fair question, then, whether the university should not occupy itself with this, and leave the professional side of the subjects to be dealt with by the scientific schools.

It seems fair to suggest, for example, that a true Faculty of Law at Harvard ought not to be equipping aspirants with useful knowledge in the way of getting up briefs, handling witnesses, and steering flagitious enterprises with skill enough to keep their promoters out of jail. Let a good law school do all that; the Faculty of Law should be taking on eligible products of the law school, and filling them up bung-full of useless knowledge. In a word, the law school should be producing sheer practitioners, giving them every chance at all the science, all the useful knowledge, that there is; the Faculty of Law should be producing practitioners like Sir Henry Maine, Maitland, Lord Penzance, or the Lord Chief Justice Coleridge. Let some medical school teach intending practitioners how to track down sinus trouble and operate for appendicitis; the Faculty of Medicine at Johns Hopkins should be producing practitioners like William Osler, Mitchell, Draper, Pancoast, shoveling into them all the prodigious mass of useless knowledge that these men acquired, and then bidding them go forth and forget it as handily as these men did. There are enough divinity schools in operation here and there to give students for the ministry all the useful knowledge necessary to a successful exercise of their profession. Let them attend to this, and meanwhile let the Faculty of Theology at Yale attend to its own business. If it did so, who knows but it might produce some theologians like the Cambridge Platonists, religious philosophers like Bishop Butler, moralists like the doctors of Salamanca? Things being as they are, we could do with a good many such just now, if we had them, and if we may not look to the university for them, where are we to look?


So much, then, for culture when considered as a process. Considered now as a possession, one may define culture as the residuum of a large body of useless knowledge that has been well and truly forgotten. In order to see how this is so, let us take the simplest possible illustration. Let us suppose that I say to you, ‘Plato says so-andso.’ You reply, ‘I think not. I cannot speak positively, for I have long forgotten every word of Plato that I ever read. But all of Plato that I have read and forgotten, taken together with all I have read of a great many other authors and likewise forgotten, has left me with a clear residual impression that Plato never said anything like that.’ Then you look it up and find that you are right.

Being right about a saying of Plato is perhaps not important in itself, and this illustration must not be taken to imply that it is important. All this depends on what the saying is, and the connection in which it is brought forward. Plato said a great many fine things that are no doubt worth recalling on occasion, but the illustration is meant only to give a clearer notion of the kind of thing that a residuum of useless knowledge is, and how it works on the mind of the person who has it.

The value of useless knowledge is another matter. I have already suggested that it has great value, and another type of illustration may serve to show in part what that value is. The field of useless knowledge is so vast that one might multiply illustrations almost indefinitely, and establish a tolerably complete set of values by their aid; but here, where there is no room for a treatise, we will keep to a single line of illustration, and a single line of values.

The prime example of useless knowledge that occurs to me for this purpose is a knowledge of history. Alchemy, astrology, sociology, horoscopy — it is wildly conceivable that if one went in for any of these he might somewhere by some chance strike a trifling streak of ‘pay dirt’; whereas in the case of history such a thing is inconceivable, at least by me. Whether or not the best example, however, history seems to offer a very good example, as good as any I can bring to mind, of knowledge which is utterly useless except as it be forgotten; but which, when forgotten, becomes of great value. ‘The only thing that history teaches us,’ said the German philosopher, ‘is that history teaches us nothing’; and we may put the point of his epigram in still fewer words by saying merely that remembered history is valueless.

Let us suppose the case of one who, back in the bad old times when the university made a point of doing such jobs pretty thoroughly, had been loaded to the guards with history, perhaps by some Mommsen, Niebuhr, or Guizot, and then turned loose to take the world as he found it. When he is well past middle age a war breaks out, and publicists, propagandists, pedants, and professors lift up their voices with one accord to tell him that the cause of the war is absolutely this-or-that, the object of the war is absolutely thus-and-so, and that the character of one and another of the belligerents is absolutely such-and-such. If he has not forgotten his useless learning, if any of it remains on the surface of his mind, these affirmations encounter it and blend with it in a blur; and it is ten to one — nay, a hundred to one — that the account he gives himself of these matters, the account with which he finally satisfies himself, will be as purely conventional as any of those that the pedants and propagandists offer.

But suppose his useless learning is gone. Life has obliged him to remember so much useful knowledge that he has lost not only his history, but his whole original cargo of useless knowledge; history, languages, literatures, the higher mathematics, or what you will — all are gone. The Carthaginian wars and the battle of Pavia are but names to him, or not even names. When they were fought, and where, and ‘how come,’ and who won, and why, and what the consequences were — of all this, or any of it, he knows nothing. All that aniline has sunk down into the hectograph pad, leaving no trace of a definite pattern; but it has diffused itself throughout the texture of the pad and imparted its color to the gelatine. Therefore the affirmations of the pedants encounter no confusing surface impressions, but encounter only a general cast of thought that has been colored by purely residual learning. Hence he replies, ‘I think not. I think this war came about in quite another way, and that it has quite another set of objects’; and the mere passage of time brings proof that he is right.

Again, let us say that in the same circumstances an association of governments is proposed, to bring about permanent peace, to promote disarmament, to ensure the rights of racial minorities, to safeguard democracy, to protect small nations from molestation, and to further various other laudable purposes. The proposal is taken up and vigorously pushed by energumens who declare that this association is meant to do all these things and will unfailingly do them. The man who has forgotten all his useless learning was once aware that this proposal would be nothing new, that similar associations similarly advertised have already appeared in history under similar circumstances; but now he remembers nothing about any of them, not even its name. He says, however, ‘No, I believe this association is proposed for quite different purposes, and that it will never accomplish any of the things you say it will’; and, again, the mere passage of time proves that he is right. It may appear, indeed he himself may think, that his reaction is instinctive, but it is not; it is due to the residuum of useless and forgotten learning.

Thus it may be seen how useless knowledge can be made directly contributory to a force of sound and disinterested public opinion. We are told nowadays that such opinion will never prevail in a republic, and indeed, as things stand, it seems unlikely to do so; if for no other reason, because it is inimical to well-established political interests, and to the general auspices under which public affairs are managed. The business of a practical politician, as Edmund Burke said, is ‘ still further to contract the narrowness of men’s ideas, to confirm inveterate prejudices, to inflame vulgar passions, and to abet all sorts of popular absurdities.’ He is all for the theory that moral questions are determinable by a plebiscite; that right and wrong, truth and falsehood, come down in the last instance to a matter of counting noses, and therefore their practical test is always, as we say, ‘what one can get away with.’ This being so obviously the case, there is small chance that a force of sound and disinterested public opinion can prevail. Nevertheless it is generally thought desirable that such a force should exist in society, and, if that be so, any discipline likely to generate it must be regarded as valuable.

The discipline of useless knowledge, moreover, moves a person always to ‘ run to the short way ’ in his estimate of public enterprises, to strike through to their first principles and ‘ the reason of the thing,’ instead of being caught and held by their more manifest aspects. When someone tells him, for example, what a good thing for Rome it was to win the Carthaginian wars, cabbage all the trade of Carthage, and set up a great Mediterranean empire, he replies that it was certainly impressive, but, as to its being a good thing for Rome, he would first have to know what the Romans were like when they got through doing it. Thus he cuts straight through to the first principle so often cited by Mr. Jefferson, that a public enterprise is to be judged, not by its direct effect on commerce, finance, industry, employment, and the like, but by its effect on collective human character; and a discipline which moves him invariably to judge it in this way has value.


We hear on all sides that the world is in a bad way, so bad as to give but slim assurance that anything worth doing can be done about it. Some think we are plunging into the chaos of the Dark Ages; others think we are at the end of an era, and entering into a new medéevalism. One suspects that these views of our situation may be a little excessive, or at least that while waiting for the crash we have time to be cheerful. If it be true, however, that the world is actually perishing before our eyes, there is perhaps some sort of melancholy interest in the thought that it may be perishing largely of inattention to the value of useless knowledge.

Nothing shows more clearly how profound this inattention is than the nature of current comment on the New Deal. This comment runs to millions of words, and covers every conceivable question suggested by our public enterprises except the one that the man of forgotten learning most wants to hear discussed. He is naturally interested in the outcome of these enterprises, interested to see how the American variant of Statism and corporalism is going to work, and therefore he is glad to read all the intelligent comment on it, pro and con, that comes his way; but the previous question always rises in his mind. Suppose our adventure in Statism works perfectly, suppose the New Deal scores a clean success at every practical point, what kind of people are we going to be when it has done so?

This, in his view, is the really important question raised by the recrudescence of Statism in Europe. He is aware that Bolshevism, Fascism, Hitlerism, are all essentially identical, all branches off the same tree planted by the German idealist philosophers in the early years of the last century. They all mean, in essence, that the State is everything, the individual nothing. Fichte put it that ‘the State is the superior power, ultimate and beyond appeal, absolutely independent,’ and Hegel said that ‘the State is the general substance, whereof individuals are but accidents.’ There is the general formula for all variants of the common doctrine of Statism.1 Well, then, what one really wants to know is the effect that this doctrine is likely to produce in the long run upon the character of those who swallow it. In the long run, what will Mussolini’s Italians be like, or Hitler’s Germans, or Stalin’s Russians?

Certain features of the American variant of Statism raise the same question about ourselves, but they are never discussed; one never hears anything about them. They are four in number: first, according to Mr. Hopkins’s report published on the day I write this, thirty million persons, nearly one fourth of our population, are being subsidized by the Federal Government ; second, a vote-controlling bureaucracy has been prodigiously expanded; third, executive control over legislation has been made almost absolute through the distribution of money in the Congressional districts; fourth, centralization has been made almost absolute by federal grants to the states, or, as one writer puts it very well, these subsidies have set up a carpetbag government in every state.

These features of the New Deal impress the man of forgotten learning so unfavorably that he gets out his dusty books and looks up his history to see if perchance he may be wrong; and he finds that he is not wrong. His impression is abundantly made good. Curiously, too, the instance that most conspicuously corroborates it is one where no blame, no disparagement, no breath of suspicion, could rightfully be directed against the executive authority, but quite the opposite; and this pleases him, because he likes to consider all such matters, or indeed all matters, as impersonally as possible.

At the end of the first century, Rome had already seen how easily a republic slides off into despotism, and despotism into ruinous tyranny. Things had been at low tide in the empire for some time; the Flavian dynasty had petered out to the tune of something that one could really call a depression. Meanwhile mendicancy and subvention had been erected into a permanent political asset, not at first embracing one fourth of Rome’s population, probably, but well on its way to do so. Bureaucracy, which in earlier times hardly counted, began to spread wide and grow rapidly. Centralization busily undermined the large measure of self-rule that had prevailed in the provinces and even more largely in the cities. Quite in the tone of Mr. Jefferson, Plutarch speaks bitterly of this decay of local public spirit, saying that those who refer every twopenny detail of public life to Rome must share the spiritual fate of the hypochondriac who will neither bathe nor eat but as the doctor tells him.

Then a remarkable thing happened. For the next eighty years the empire was governed by an unbroken succession of extraordinarily able and good rulers, each one better than his predecessor. The short and good reign of Nerva bridged the turn of the century. Then came Trajan, the most just, frugal, and energetic of all Rome’s emperors, so far. Then Hadrian, who added to Trajan’s virtues great wisdom and foresight, breadth of view, and range of sympathy. Then Antoninus Pius, whom to name is enough, and then one who need not even be named; the world has not once looked upon his like, and his praise is for ever and ever. Yet hardly was the breath out of his body before the rotten social fabric of Rome disintegrated, and the empire crumbled to pieces.

If ever rulers were disinterested, these were. None of them wished to set up a carpetbag government in the provinces and cities. They clearly foresaw the upshot of organized mendicancy and subvention, of the growing power of bureaucracy, of the growing tendency to centralization. They did the best they could to check these malignant growths, but could do nothing. The combination of jobholders, prætorian guards, frontier soldiers, and subsidized Roman rabble could turn out any disobliging government on short notice by the simple expedient of cutting a disobliging emperor’s throat. The mere suspicion that Nerva was for a general policy of retrenchment brought sudden fate on him, and even Trajan, the most heavyhanded of the lot, could do little worth doing in the way of reform. The emperors of the second century remind one of nothing so much as an array of the world’s best physicians striving to reclaim a hopeless cancer patient .

The thing could not be done; there is the whole story. The cancer of organized mendicancy, subvention, bureaucracy, and centralization had so far weakened its host that at the death of Marcus Aurelius there was simply not enough producing power left to pay the bills. Under the exactions of the jobholders, nobody could do any business, fields went untilled, and even the army had to be recruited among foreigners. But to the man of useless learning these matters are only relatively important. In his view the significant thing is that, under the conditions existing, eighty years of continuous effort by five of the world’s best and ablest rulers could not prevent the Roman populace from degenerating into the very scum of the earth, worthless, vicious, contemptible, sheer human sculch.

A rather long-winded illustration, possibly, in support of my thesis that useless knowledge has value, but the fact that no one else is saying anything on the subject may perhaps serve as its excuse.

  1. This seems to be officially acknowledged. Compare this formula with Mussolini’s declaration that ‘the State embraces everything, and nothing outside the State has value. The State creates right’; with Hitler’s assertion that ‘the State dominates the nation because it alone represents it’; and with Lenin’s frank admission that ‘it is nonsense to make any pretense of reconciling the State and liberty.’ — AUTHOR