In 1939, Abraham Flexner, the founder of Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study, published “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” in Harper’s Magazine. It is a seminal essay that should be required reading for every institution’s board, administrators, and faculty alike. It celebrates the liberal arts and the “products” that creative thinking enables; underlying Flexner’s premise is the long-term vision afforded by the liberal arts.
Flexner notes that liberal arts-style creative thinking — thinking that is motivated purely by curiosity and the desire for answers to deep questions, regardless of practical applications — has, in fact, led to many practical discoveries with deep impact that are valued by the wider society. The list is far longer than these few examples (Flexner offers the first two; I’ve added an additional two):
- Michael Faraday’s experiments enabled his discovery of the ability to induce electricity; this has led to, well, every bit of our modern lives we take for granted! No electrical generation? No modern medicine, no computers, no lights, no mass farming techniques — the list goes on.
- James Clerk Maxwell’s pure research and mathematical models led to the ability to control and send radio waves. This then enabled the practical inventor Guglielmo Marconi to develop the wireless.
- Monastic scholars, from the Schoolmen to the early humanists, were committed to a seemingly abstract preoccupation with recovering ancient language and texts. Their efforts led to a renaissance of learning and a focus on texts that played a profound role in the Reformation.
- Had Hedy Lamarr — Hollywood icon, Austrian émigré, and genius mathematician — not pursued her curiosity in the development of certain equations, there would be no signal hopping, and we would not be using cellphones or Wi-Fi.
The “useless knowledge” of the liberal arts has indeed proven to be useful in the long term. But we now live in a world that prioritizes and prizes the practical arts over the liberal. Amid the challenges that present themselves to us in our present world, we are often tempted (and indeed may even be pushed by many of our institutional constituents) to focus solely on those studies that offer an immediate and obviously beneficial payoff. As academics, we often find ourselves required to apologize for research or to justify the days spent in the library, laboratory, or wandering about lost in our intellectual imagination as we consider an idea. The practical arts are important, but they are not sufficient; they are far too constrained and narrow to serve the long-term common good.
But in defending the vision of the liberal arts, we find both a challenge and an opportunity. Academic institutions — and the research activity that happens within them — are a rarity in our world in that they provide a long-term vision that spans generations, even as they engage new ideas and technologies. In a world that favors short-term gain, immediate turn-around, and instantaneous results, academics (and the institutions they serve) have a unique responsibility: Produce work that offers a long view. Ours is an investment not simply in the next generation that happens to populate the current classroom (whether that classroom is meeting in a physical space or over Zoom) but in the generations and the societies that we cannot yet conceive because they have not yet been conceived.
Where else could we find communities of people and leaders considering and actively working to contribute to the common good of those who are not yet born? Among businesses? Well, perhaps a rare few. Wall Street? The stock market is notorious for rewarding short-termism. Governments? Occasional policies may prepare for the long term, but the examples of failure to do so are much more common. Even churches, with all the good they do, are generally focused on the needs of the immediate moment or on the heavenly life to come; there is not a lot of consideration for generations to come in 50 years or more.
But colleges and universities committed to the liberal arts focus on the discovery of new knowledge (as Cardinal John Henry Newman describes it), the transmission of knowledge to students, and the formation of those involved in the learning. Formation is not just focused on immediate needs or the activity in the classroom today; it invests itself in ways that go beyond the reckoning of a few days or years.
Research is a particular form of service, a formative exercise that invests in the long vision as a way of life. It is a commitment of those in academia to offer something transformative and to present a vision that extends beyond the immediate, the pragmatic, and the personally beneficial. The impact of particular research projects may not be realized for many years; they may not even impact our own immediate communities. Liberal arts institutions have a unique call to serve those in whom we invest without any hope of return or benefit. We have a call to speak, serve, and act prophetically without knowing the impact we will have. We do so with a vision of serving the common good, both in the communities present today and the far-off tomorrow.
While I would not claim that Christian colleges and universities stand alone in thinking about the long-term common good, they are a rare commodity. As Christian scholars taking the long view, our commitment to research and long-term vision calls us to interpret the layers of pain in the world for our current and future students, and the broader communities entailed, and better enables them to respond in a way that is deeply marked by our Christian vision. Our world needs those who express a vocation steeped in the long view.
Stanley P. Rosenberg is the CCCU’s vice president for research and scholarship and the executive director of SCIO: Scholarship & Christianity in Oxford, the CCCU’s U.K. subsidiary.