The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

by Allison Bearly

This semester, while interning with the Truman State University Press, I noticed a small, slim book titled Valuing Useless Knowledge: An Anthropological Inquiry into the Meaning of Liberal Education by Robert Bates Graber. The title intrigued me and it kept catching my attention, so I finally picked it up to look at it. I knew I needed to continue reading the book after reading the prologue in which Graber states:

The liberal arts may be defined—impishly, but accurately nonetheless—as essentially those areas of knowledge in which practical-minded parents hope their children will not major. “But what are you going to do,” they cry, “with a major in ——?”

This struck a chord with me because I myself am one of those impractical students who decided to major in English and minor in French and anthropology. And with graduation approaching in just a few short weeks, the “But what are you going to do?” question arises more and more frequently—from my parents, friends, and mere strangers who have only just learned what my degree will be in.

In his book, Graber examines the historical and philosophical roots of the liberal arts, saying that it “is a kind of knowledge noted above all for being relatively useless.” Following this statement, it would be a reasonable assumption that a liberal arts education would not be valued by members of our society; however, that is not the case. Graber claims this mostly useless knowledge somehow has the most value of all for students. It is from this starting point that Graber makes his anthropological inquiry as to why we as a culture should place value on useless information.

An anthropologist himself, Graber cites a wide range of disciplines. He draws from religious figures like John Henry Newman, philosophers including Herbert Spencer and Democritus, scientist and naturalist Charles Darwin, and perhaps most importantly, anthropologist Marvin Harris. Within the field of anthropology, Harris is a cultural materialist, which, in his own words, is a concept that “is based on the simple premise that human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence.” Harris is particularly well-known for his study of the sacred cow in India. It is from this research that Graber arrives at his answer to his inquiry about the value of a liberal arts education.

The gist behind Harris’s study of the sacred cow is that while it seems strange that there is a taboo in the Hindu religion against eating cows when so much of India is overpopulated and underfed, there is actually a nonreligious rationale behind the taboo. It is cows that provide oxen that plow the land that in turn grows the food for people to eat. Harris’s conclusion was that if farmers slaughtered their cattle whenever hunger struck, it would be detrimental in the long run because they wouldn’t have sufficient labor with which to plow their fields.

Graber applies this concept to liberal knowledge, equating it with the sacred cow. If one sees human knowledge as sacred, then, Graber says, there is a taboo against judging its usefulness. Human knowledge needs protection, just like the cow in India, because our judgment of what is useful or not is often narrowly defined and biased. In order to avoid this bias, Graber poses three questions to consider: useful for whom, useful when, and useful how? “We must then value ‘useless knowledge’ precisely because we cannot trust ourselves to know truly useless knowledge when we see it. Our vision is too limited, our judgments too archaically short-sighted, self-centered, and simpleminded,” Graber says.

In other words, what is useful is incredibly subjective. Rather than only valuing what we see as useful right now, we need to protect all human knowledge, or else face potentially grim repercussions — repercussions similar to those that Hindus in India would face if they chose to slaughter their cows. Rather than be faced with a hunger due to a lack of food, we would be faced with a hunger for knowledge and no way to satisfy it. Graber concludes by saying he cannot prove any of this—if he could, it would contribute to the repository of practical knowledge. And after all, he points out, a defense of liberal knowledge must itself be a contribution to liberal knowledge.

So it is this new-to-me point of view, this seemingly useless information in my brain that I must keep in mind in the weeks, months and years to come after graduation. While many may see my degree as impractical and useless in comparison to, say, nursing or engineering, it is up to us as humans to value knowledge for its own sake. I hope that others, future employers in particular, will value my love of the pursuit of knowledge, and I know that post graduation I will continue attempting to satiate my hunger for “useless” knowledge.