In praise of ‘useless’ knowledge

    3 September 2020

    When I was at university, a clever classicist friend chose to study hieroglyphics in his spare time for fun. ‘Can you read them fluently?’ I asked him once. ‘Oh no, I can only do restaurant hieroglyphics,’ he said modestly — the way some people can only speak restaurant French.

    What a wonderful way to spend your university years, I thought then, as I think now. To learn something that is ostensibly useless but will serve you well over and over again for the rest of your life, whether you’re in the British Museum’s Egyptian rooms, on holiday in Luxor or just expanding your understanding of the best that’s been thought, written and said. The point of education.

    Because the role of learning isn’t to be purely pragmatic, to design a child for a speculative career long before they know what they’re going to do. In the 1950s, the supposedly pragmatic thing to do was to study Russian — clever undergraduates such as Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett were packed off to the Joint Services School for Linguists before Cambridge and Oxford to learn the language in preparation for a war that never came.

    More recently, Mandarin was the go-to subject for ambitious mummies who wanted their little geniuses to get on in the world. That was before China was declared Public Enemy No. 1. Suddenly Mandarin doesn’t seem so pragmatic after all.

    That’s the sort of mess you end up in if you’re constantly adapting your child’s education to a constantly changing world. You get trapped in a time lag with an almost inevitably outdated education.

    Paradoxically, the further you go back in history for your education, the less likely you are to learn outdated things. Eternal truths are exactly that; nothing dates as quickly as this morning’s newspaper. Thus the idiocy of the recent decision to allow GCSE students to do English literature without any poetry — which, at its best, is eternal truth in verse.

    When I heard the sad news, I thought of John Keating, the teacher played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. When he’s asked by a pupil what the point of poetry is, he says: ‘We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.’ Of course an aspiring doctor or engineer must study medicine and engineering at university. But, before they do, they should enrich their minds with supposedly useless, impractical subjects like poetry.

    I did Greek, Latin and ancient history at university and how glad I am that I did — they have enriched my understanding of the world every day since I graduated. How I wish I’d learnt some even more useless things — restaurant hieroglyphics and some Hebrew, too — to really understand the roots of Egyptian and Judeo-Christian culture.

    If I had my time again at school, I wouldn’t drop those subjects that are thought pointless or antiquated because they have no supposed bearing on real life. I would drop the supposedly practical things — citizenship, sex education, personal, social, health and economic education and computing — entirely because they are the stuff of real life.

    Yes, it’s useful to know about health, sex and computers when you’re a grown-up. But these are things you learn about anyway outside the classroom. I’m writing this on a laptop without a formal computer lesson in my life. Children spend much of their waking hours strapped to their devices; they hardly need to be taught how to use them. Of course some real eggheads will need to study coding and the higher reaches of computing, but let that be a specialisation learnt after an introduction to the eternal truths of poetry.

    How to be a good citizen; how money works; how to have sex. These are things you necessarily learn from the business of life. Latin, Greek, restaurant hieroglyphics… These are things you’re incredibly unlikely to learn in passing. They must be taught and, like most difficult things, taught early if they are to stick properly to the sides of your brain.

    Think of the wonderful things you could replace computing and sex education with. Things that will change the way you see the world. You will have your own list of supposedly useless subjects you wish you’d been taught at school. I wish I’d been taught the classical orders of architecture, the history of classical music, and art and architectural history from Stonehenge to Picasso.

    Nothing’s more pointless at school than pragmatic information about the modern world. And nothing’s more useful than learning useless, ancient truths.


    Harry Mount is the author of Amo, Amas, Amat and All That (Short Books).