The Discipline of Useless Knowledge

7 December — Considered as a process, culture consists in an intensive learning and an intensive forgetting. Thus when a smart little Jewish boy from the East Side, or an alfalfa-fed girl from the great open spaces, comes to the college or university in search of culture, one should say, ‘Youngster, it is an affair of many years, many things, and much labour. You must learn much, and forget much, and the forgetting is as important as the learning’. Considered as a possession, culture might be described as the residuum left by a diligently forgotten learning. For example, someone tells you that Plato said so-and-so. You say, ‘I think not. What I have read of Plato and forgotten, and also of a great many other authors, likewise forgotten, has left the residual impression that Plato was extremely unlikely to have said anything of the kind’. Then you look it up, and find that you are right. But what would our modern schools think of a person who had this notion of culture? Oxford expresses somewhat this notion in a practical way, or did once express it, and therein largely lay the greatness of Oxford. I could never reconcile myself to the idea that the scientific school had any proper place in a university. A university implies faculties, and the function of a faculty is not the dissemination of useful knowledge, but the curatorship of useless knowledge; the kind of knowledge that, properly acquired and properly forgotten, leaves the residuum of culture. I have even had doubts about the position of the Faculty of Medicine in the traditional four faculties. I can see how it came to be included, and why in a sense it should be included still. Formerly it did not do much with the science of medicine, but mostly with its history and literature; and this was all very good, quite what a Faculty of Medicine should be doing now. For example, the Faculty of Medicine at Johns Hopkins ought not to be dealing out useful knowledge to medical students. Let a medical school do that. It ought to be winnowing and conserving the vast body of useless knowledge that has grown up around the profession. In short, it ought not to be making practitioners; it ought to be making practitioners like Pancoast and William Osler. Similarly, the Faculty of Law ought not to aim at turning out lawyers, but at turning out lawyers like Coleridge, Lord Penzance, or James Coolidge Carter. That seems to have been the more or less conscious aim of the medieval faculty; at least, its curriculum tended that way. Let us have all the science there is, let us have all the useful knowledge there is, but let us have them from the scientific schools, and leave the colleges and the universities free to employ themselves upon the enormous resources of useless knowledge, which are of such incalculable value, and are now so completely neglected that one could make out a pretty good case for the thesis that the world is perishing of inattention to the discipline of useless knowledge.” (Albert Jay Nock, A Journal of These Days, 1934)