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Discussions on ‘Useless’ learning over the years

Should students devote time to studying ‘useless’ subjects? The debate has been running for (at least) 127 years. The arguments often boil down to questions such as: ‘Maybe something that seems useless now, could be useful in the future?’ or ‘Who’s in a position to say what’s useless anyway?’ For an early example, see the following letter to the journal Nature in 1892. It was in reply to a previous note from Prof. William Edward Ayrton FRS [pictured] who had been complaining [sorry, no weblink yet found] that students might be advised to stick to ‘useful’ subjects (that’s to say, err, like the professor’s).

The reply, from Prof George Francis FitzGerald at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, was titled : ‘The Value of Useless Studies’

“It is rather surprising that Prof. Ayrton should indulge in covert sneers at Universities for devoting themselves to useless studies. It certainly ill becomes one whose life is bound up with electrical science, which is of such recent growth that nobody can pretend to forget how it owes its origin to those who studied it while useless.”

Now scroll forward to 2019 . . . for an article in the Journal of Science Education and Technology, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 62–68. ‘The Rise of the Useless: the Case for Talent Diversity’, in which Distinguished Professor Yong Zhao, of the Faculty of Education, East China Normal University, Shanghai, China and the School of Education, University of Kansas, US relates that :

“Not all unique combinations of expertise, personalities, desires, and talents are of equal economic or social value. The value and desirability of expertise, personalities, desires, and talents is relevant to specific tasks, jobs, outcomes, and societal values. When certain expertise or personality type contributes to the completion of a task, it is valuable. Otherwise, it is useless. Likewise, when a talent contributes to a desirable outcome, it is valuable. Similarly, if an interest or skill aligns with values of a society, it is valuable. Otherwise, they are deemed ‘useless’. “

And, further :

“Those who are talented in music, arts, dancing, singing, designing, storytelling, acting, taking care of people and animals, and a host of other jobs that may not even have a name have become useful and worthy of development.”

Note: Professor Ayrton later provided a riposte to FitzGerald’s rejoinder : in which he said “[…] perhaps he [i.e. FitzGerald] will tell us whether he raise the study of mechanical and electrical engineering to the lofty position of uselessness […]”

Research research by Martin Gardiner

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