Idle Knowledge

Education should not be defended on strict utilitarian grounds. Children should spend their school years learning all the things they will not need later in life.

It has lately become fashionable to criticize schools and universities: They aren’t tailored to the demands of the 21st century, they aren’t efficient enough, they teach knowledge that children will never need and quickly forget.

Before we can assess the veracity of such claims, we must answer a more fundamental question: What is the purpose of education? Should educational institutions strive to teach children and adolescents as much useful knowledge as possible before adulthood, and should their curricula reflect the requisites demanded by employers? Indeed, what do we mean by “necessary” or “useful” knowledge? For example, is it an indicator of educational achievement if students retain and apply their classroom knowledge for the rest of their lives?

Consider this: It’s very hard to predict exactly what facts and skills a person will need throughout their life. The experiences of the last decades have highlighted the speed with which curricular knowledge can become outdated. Information technologies have brought about a world in which up-to-date knowledge can be accessed anytime and from almost anywhere. In some cases, technology has led to an outright replacement of humans, whose hard-learned skills were suddenly trumped by machines. Where this shift hasn’t happened yet, it’s it likely to happen in the near future. Soon, nobody will be required to solve a multiplication like 231×571 on paper, and it will no longer be necessary for students to memorize historical dates. All relevant information can be accessed instantaneously. We can even foresee a future in which knowledge of foreign languages will become irrelevant. Researchers are already working on smartphones that can serve as translators: any sentence I speak into the phone’s mic would be instantaneously and correctly translated and broadcast in a different language.

The specialists’ conundrum

In addition, most people will pursue a professional specialization that draws only on a tiny section of the knowledge they learned in school. An engineer need not know much about literature and history. A bank employee need not know biology and chemistry to do their job.

If the justification for compulsory education is that it teaches us knowledge and skills we will require later in life, we could surely drop out after elementary school. After a few years of school, we have mastered the basics that will absolutely be required in the years and decades to come. We can read and write (ideally not just with pen and paper but on different electronic keyboards), we can add, subtract, and do a bit of multiplication and division.

Yet the purpose of education has never been to convey useful knowledge in the most efficient manner. Much of the knowledge and skills that school children learn will be of limited direct use later in life. Some of it will be forgotten or will be rendered irrelevant through the rise of new technologies. It would thus be wholly misguided to compose curricula and to defend compulsory education based on strictly utilitarian considerations.

A defense of idle knowledge

To the contrary: Children should spend their school years learning all the things they will not need later in life. Anything that would be useful can easily be acquired later on, once students have internalized the fundamentals of learning and thinking. The greatest prospect of a good education is that schools can create a foundation upon which students can continue to build.

Yet some of the things that we must no longer memorize (because they can easily be accessed online) should nonetheless be learned to allow students to comprehend and interpret subsequent experiences. On that list of productive but superfluous knowledge I include the study of famous poems, the dates of important inventions, and basic mathematical calculations. These mental fixtures allow us to categorize new knowledge and connect new thoughts. Over time, much of this elementary knowledge will be forgotten, but a few fragments will often be sufficient to reconstruct and connect ideas.

These benefits aren’t limited to the fine arts or to pure science. A child who has planted a seed and watched a little plant grow from a sapling will better understand how fruit and vegetables end up in grocery store isles. And if you have ever looked through a microscope, you will better understand the workings of biological processes and the transfer of nuclei from one cell to another.

As mature citizens in a changing world, we require a broad and deeply sedimented knowledge foundation upon which we can construct and reconstruct our world view — sometimes by taking a piece to polish and reuse it, sometimes by building new towers of knowledge from the ground up, sometimes by razing knowledge that hasn’t been maintained and has ceased to be useful. And every once in a while by digging deep down into the sediments to uncover a long-forgotten gem of knowledge.

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