What’s the point of knowledge if you don’t use it?

Production. Outcome. A result. Project-based learning seems intently focused on this. Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence has a lot going for it: its attention to disciplined, persistent work is admirable, but it, too, falls into this trap. Learning is only seen as valuable if something is done with it.

In a similar vein, Debra Kidd said of School 21:

What is the point of learning if no-one hears you? What is the point of academic success if you can’t interview successfully? What is the point of knowledge if you don’t use it to change the world?

This view of learning just doesn’t resonate for me. There is intrinsic value in learning: in making your mind a more interesting place to be; in the wonder and awe that new information can bring. We may be unlikely to use, in a practical sense, much of what we learnt in school, at university and in life, but I certainly feel privileged to know it. Why do David Attenborough documentaries get so many viewers? Why do long reads get millions of clicks? Why do books still sell in an age of Kim Kardashian apps and Candy Crush? Because learning is wonderful, whether or not it is shared or used.

As for interview skills, my mind is immediately drawn to my first week of university, at the matriculation dinner. By the third course, the computer science students had ceased engaging in conversation and broken out their laptops. A lot of them would be the first to concede they would not interview well (how do you know a computer scientist’s an extrovert? They look at YOUR shoes when they’re talking.). But that damned well did not render their academic success pointless.

It’s not just ivory towered academics who benefit from knowledge in the absence of interview skills. A plumber probably won’t need to know much Shakespeare on the job, but knowing which plays he wrote and some of the fabulous lines would mean he feels just as entitled to go and see a play at The Globe as anyone else – and why not? The works of the Bard are worth knowing because of their greatness, regardless of whether you use them for practical purposes.

Corporations will inevitably concentrate on production and utility: I expect the CBI will be grumbling about skills for work on the Today programme every few months until I retire. But we teachers need not fall into that trap. We can recognise and celebrate all knowledge: the useful and the useless, the easily accessed and the esoteric, the applicable and the arcane.

Knowledge is an inherent good. Let’s stop obsessing over what we can produce with it, and simply laud learning in its purest form.

4 thoughts on “What’s the point of knowledge if you don’t use it?

  1. chrismwparsons

    I entirely agree with you that learning and the knowledge which results from it are worthwhile in themselves.

    The danger I feel is if we start to dig out a position which says that this therefore should be the only purpose of education. Ultimately this can only be just an opinion based on personal subjective experience.

    Perhaps a more universally arguable truth should be that educating for personal satisfaction rather than just usefulness should be an essential part of education. However, people find satisfaction in many things… sport, music, drugs, status, watching TV, food & drink, communal belonging, religious experience… etc. etc.

    Really if we fall into the trap of saying that education should JUST be about making people cleverer, then we are really just trying to inflict a ‘meaning of life’ opinion on others, and this is just as partial as saying it should JUST be about ensuring that they are able to be productive.

    This can of course work in a ‘Free School’ system, where the people who run the school say – “well THIS is what we think it should all be about – come to us if you agree”. But you could never argue that it should be the norm across all schools from any position other than personal belief.

    My personal belief is that if we’re going to take people’s children hostage for 13 or more years of their most formative period of life, we need to cover more bases than any one purpose of education – educating for necessity, opportunity AND experience.

    I’ve ranted about these things below if you want more of my opinion to quibble with!

  2. benjaminjevans

    Yes. Never waver from the belief that education is about making minds, and careers will follow. Seeing School as just a means to an end leads to an approach where we forget the delights of the journey.


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