An Aristocrat of the Soul

by William Moeck

Abraham Flexner’s classic defense of intellectual and spiritual freedom raises the question of whether the pursuit of academic excellence can remain — or should even try to remain — politically neutral
Museumgoers view Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, May 9–August 27, 2007, part of an exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the creation of the epoch-making painting. (Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

“Informational Literacy” is one of several assessment rubrics used at the college where I teach humanities, and with which I gauge the outcomes of student learning each semester. Along with “Cultural Literacy” and “Critical Thinking,” such student outcomes, which are considered distinct from semester grades, are measured by means of essay assignments, midterm exams, and oral reports a reader may fondly remember from college days of yore, except that what is ultimately being measured now is excellence in teaching rather than individual scholarship.

The current craze for rubrics and metrics in institutions of higher learning is based on several assumptions, the first being that the goals of courses in the sciences and humanities can be broken down into clear and simple terms, irrespective of subject matter and which yet admit of quantifiable measurement. Second, and perhaps more ominous, is the expectation that faculty members can be (and should commit to be) doing a better job. University administrators hopeful of raising retention rates and improving graduation numbers have thus reconfigured the notion of excellence in teaching to parallel that of excellence in manufacturing. What can we do at our school to make our educational product better and more effective than those of our competitors? This bizarre turn of the ivory tower to the corporate model has its origin in a much older question.

What is the difference between knowledge and know-how? This ancient riddle lies at the heart of Abraham Flexner’s essay The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (1939), recently reissued by Princeton University Press with an introduction by Robbert Dijkgraaf. The purpose of my review is to underscore the continuing relevance of the ringing defense of academic freedom offered by Flexner, an educational reformer of the first quarter of the 2oth century who went on to become the first administrator of the Institute for Advanced Study, the prestigious think tank located in Princeton, New Jersey, while yet suggesting how the humanities and sciences have parted ways since his day.

In the effort to persuade readers of the importance of funding abstruse cogitation done by prodigies and polymaths — Albert Einstein, Erwin Panofsky, and Clifford Geertz were members of the Institute’s faculty — Flexner’s essay builds on his earlier work extolling the role of scholarship in a democratic society. The American College (1908) criticized undergraduate lecture halls for failing to address the needs of students, and led to his report on Medical Education in the United States and Canada (1910), which single-handedly improved teaching standards across the country.

The elective system in place at the time did not educate students in civic and human responsibilities and forced them to settle, whether by vague premonition or “premature narrowness,” on future vocations without having been prepared for the task. And if the end result of education was not mere gainful employment so much as the “self-realization” stemming from “free exploration,” how was the average nineteen-year old — “flighty, superficial and immature” — so constituted as to steer his or her way there?

Flexner’s oeuvre bemoans the poor wages and taint of bad character attached to the teaching profession in the United States. And his solicitude for nurturing and protecting creative geniuses shines throughout The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, in which it is the “poets and artists and scientists” from whose pursuit of seemingly “useless satisfactions … [that] undreamed-of utility is derived.” Momentarily putting aside a Benthamite skepticism regarding the “undreamed-of utility” of, say, Paradise Lost or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, one must remember that it was once not unusual — in the world of the past, Flexner’s world — for people to speak of the spiritual and the intellectual life as roughly interchangeable. Flexner does not balk at the possibility that human emotions can be as profitably engaged as can more utilitarian, even “materialistic” impulses — for “our conception of what is useful may … have become too narrow to be adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit.” Tonic words for the jaded heart!

Flexner proposes to distinguish uselessness from usefulness according to the “scientific and the humanistic or spiritual” perspectives. What follows is a brief discussion weighing the contributions to civilization of James Clerk Maxwell versus those of Guglielmo Marconi. Pioneering engineer of the telegraph, Marconi “was a clever inventor with no thought but use,” while Maxwell arrived at four abstract formulations that schematized electromagnetism without any “concern about the utility,” and upon which Marconi’s invention rested.

“Our conception of what is useful may … have become too narrow to be adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit.”
— Abraham Flexner, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Like other great scientific discoveries, Flexner concludes, those “which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely by the desire to satisfy their curiosity.” This is not a point on which many today are likely to take issue. But at the outset of WWII Flexner had good reason to fear funding would be diverted into more clearly “useful” channels. The quoted passage also raises a point relevant to the question of the difference between knowledge and know-how. Is James Clerk Maxwell’s satisfaction in having articulated the relationship between electric and magnetic fields a pleasure that is recoverable by students contemplating his work? Or are the present-day satisfactions of his discovery of a nature inevitably more practical than spiritual? Should institutions of learning, as Flexner believed, “be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity” with no thought of “immediacy of application”?

The issue concerning the difference between knowledge and know-how would easily be resolved if the relationship between thinking and doing were direct. I imagine myself raising my right hand up, for example, and then I actually do it. But the cliché “knowledge is power” may be a better marketing tool for college administrators than it is a reflection of anything experienced by scholars. Take Hamlet, for instance. Anyone who has read Shakespeare’s play attentively witnesses how knowledge opens the door to suffering and not to power. For the connection between what Hamlet knows, and what happens next, is inevitably oblique. The mistake is in thinking that understanding and efficacy are one. Or maybe in supposing that knowledge in the humanities is comparable to knowledge in the sciences. It’s a question I would like to be able to mull over, but I have to go to work.

Facts are the knowable aspects of events, knowable in this case meaning that they are verifiable or demonstrable, and facts as such did not begin to take on importance in sciences other than astronomy until the Renaissance.

In an interdisciplinary college course called “The Making of the Modern Mind,” in which I introduce the basic ideas of Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Einstein, it takes much labor at the beginning of the semester to undo the tangle in students’ minds as they struggle to grasp the difference between the words theory and opinion. The two are not necessarily synonymous, the confusion having been exacerbated by the recent appearance of “alternative facts” as a ubiquitous meme in both the media and the wider culture. It is difficult for some young people to comprehend that a scientific hypothesis is not really ever proven; instead, it is only ever disproved by experimentation.

A theory does not burst forth from a set of facts — as Athena emerged from the head of Zeus — so much as it serves to corral a loose collection of data into a comprehensible unit. For the kind of mathematical certainty about the world that I find young adults to be craving, and which they mistakenly suppose can be satisfied by more and more facts, is available only in mathematics. More and more facts, on the other hand, yield an overwhelming glut of information, as Vartan Gregorian recently lamented in “Against Fragmentation: The Case for Intellectual Wandering.” Yet know-how, it should also be remarked, consists primarily of fact-based skills.

Exactly who were the painters and poets given pots of money to do whatever they please, and who in turn gave back that which is adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit?

Knowledge, unlike know-how, does not always involve facts. The Pythagorean theorem is more irrefutable than any proof of the deity’s existence once you accept the definitions, corollaries, and assumptions laid out at the beginning of Euclid’s Elements. But contrive a set of counterintuitive assumptions that involve parallel lines meeting at infinity, and you will arrive at an equally viable mathematical world. Facts are the knowable aspects of events, knowable in this case meaning that they are verifiable or demonstrable, and facts as such did not begin to take on importance in sciences other than astronomy until the Renaissance. While the ideology underlying empirical research had been given an earlier boost from Roger Bacon, the use of facts as evidential witnesses capable of providing either damning or exculpating testimony came to prominence only in the medieval law courts, as Mary Poovey has shown in A History of the Modern Fact (1998).

There is thus a problem with distinguishing knowledge from know-how in the humanities and the sciences, which distinction Flexner accepts when he enumerates the contributions made to the history of science by Michael Faraday, who inducted the first electric current in a wire, and Carl Friedrich Gauss, who developed non-Euclidean geometry. Though each was effectively only playing around with those materials that amused and interested them, their games resulted in progress of an unprecedented and unforeseen nature. Paul Ehrlich, indifferent student of anatomy and future recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, called it “fooling.”

Scientists are capable of making the greatest strides imaginable — when allowed the opportunity to muse and daydream like artists.

But the apparent uselessness of Gauss’s ideas when he was first contemplating a new geometry did not find a real and prominent home until Einstein adopted them in his theories. So is it the former lack of utility that Flexner is praising as an admirable exertion of a mind, like Gauss’s, that is fueled by sheer curiosity? Or is the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry being touted for its ultimate utility — one hundred and fifty years after Gauss’s death? Which is it? The answer to this question in Flexner remains fuzzy, although Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is lauded by Dijkgraaf for having yielded up the cosmic blueprint needed to manufacture handy GPS devices.

At this point in my reading I despair of Flexner’s illustrating his thesis with figures taken from the arts. Though he stresses that useless research in both the sciences and the humanities must be encouraged to flourish, there is a dearth of discussion of the latter — perhaps rightly so if knowledge in the sciences is incommensurate with that in the humanities. Exactly who were the painters and poets given pots of money to do whatever they please, and who in turn gave back that which is adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit? Standing in the McGraw Rotunda of The New York Public Library, surrounded by Edward Laning’s WPA-era murals, I wonder what is the point of researching material to clarify my ideas in this essay. Is it simply a matter of exorcising curiosity? Or would I have arrived at something more interesting and enduring had I been awarded a huge grant beforehand? Maybe not. “To be sure, we shall thus free some harmless cranks,” quips Flexner in anticipation of hypothetical recipients of the Institute’s financial favor.

What are the ideal circumstances, Abraham Flexner inspires readers to suppose, under which a Copernicus can flourish?

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge rises to a crescendo when, in recapitulating the significance of instances drawn from Pasteur, Koch, and Ehrlich, Flexner writes, “These great artists — for such are scientists and bacteriologists … were simply following the line of their own natural curiosity.” His principal point is that scientists are capable of making the greatest strides imaginable — when allowed the opportunity to muse and daydream like artists. Flexner prophesies in part Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), in which the greatest contributions to knowledge are made as the result of thinking outside the box.

It’s not that Ptolemy’s account of the observable phenomena of rising and setting planets was complete balderdash; indeed, the geocentric model of the universe allowed Ptolemy and his followers to make predictions regarding celestial bodies with startling precision. It’s just that most of the Aristotelian assumptions on which geocentric astronomy was founded — that planets must travel in circular orbits, for example, because a circle is the most perfect shape — were open to question. That no one had bothered to question them for a thousand years suggests one way in which knowing how to do something (predicting the next solar eclipse, for example) and actually knowing something (that the sun is the center of the galaxy) are not one and the same. What are the ideal circumstances, Abraham Flexner inspires readers to suppose, under which a Copernicus can flourish?

The ability to recognize a problem, even more than the ability to solve one, requires inner vision, Flexner suggests, more than it requires additional observations and increasingly exact measurements.

The daily round of problem-solving that goes on in the applied sciences of industry may well become a mental prison for paid practitioners insofar as basic assumptions and definitions about the nature of their work go unchallenged. The ability to recognize a problem, even more than the ability to solve one, requires inner vision, Flexner suggests, more than it requires additional observations and increasingly exact measurements. Improving the quality of the tools that allow us to do our job well — and I find myself thinking of “Informational Literacy” in particular — doesn’t help determine whether we are engaged in the right line of work.

Flexner claims he is not criticizing professional schools and specialized programs that crank out highly trained problem-solvers, for “practical difficulties encountered in industry or in laboratories stimulate theoretical inquiries … [and] may also open up new vistas,” but his censure of marketplace exigencies remains implicit. What is wanted, he stresses, is an environment capable of fostering the “individual soul bent upon its own purification and elevation.” And while individual scientists were earlier likened to artists, the inverse now applies, for “what I say is equally true of music and art and of every other expression of the untrammeled human spirit.”

Flexner claims he is not criticizing professional schools and specialized programs that crank out highly trained problem-solvers.

That such a paradise once existed for humanists, mathematicians, and social scientists — the original ranks from which Institute for Advanced Study scholars were drawn — must have meant life there was like an endless sabbatical. Institute fellows had no “duties” but only “opportunities.” That such a paradise still exists — the division of academic disciplines having been reformed in 1949 into Historical Studies, Mathematics, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences — raises the question of whether the pursuit of academic excellence can remain, or should even try to remain, politically neutral.

In regard to the arts, the once meaningful distinction between categories such as pure and applied has eroded since Flexner’s time. Such terms now convey value judgments of possibly suspect origin, just as the terms classical and popular, or high and low, to describe music or culture generally, are forms of discrimination that were useful for a century but which have since become untenable. To call, for example, hip-hop a form of low culture shows more about the person using the word than about the music purportedly illuminated by the adjective.

Flexner’s politics were far from discriminatory — he was an aristocrat of the soul, if anything — but his plea for universal tolerance belongs to a bygone era.

Flexner’s politics were far from discriminatory — he was an aristocrat of the soul, if anything — but his plea for universal tolerance belongs to a bygone era:

In the face of the history of the human race, what can be more silly or ridiculous than likes or dislikes founded upon race or religion? Does humanity want symphonies and paintings and profound scientific truth, or does it want Christian symphonies, Christian paintings, Christian science, or Jewish symphonies, Jewish paintings, Jewish science, or Mohammedan or Egyptian or Japanese or Chinese or American or German or Russian or Communist or Conservative contributions to and expressions of the infinite richness of the human soul?

At a time when America was conceived to be a melting pot, the answer to Flexner’s question could only have been “no.” But conceptions do change (ask Ptolemy), and insofar as America has been understood more recently as a cultural mosaic or tapestry, the answer today would more likely be “maybe” — at least as far as symphonies and paintings go.

Knowledge in the humanities may be inevitably inflected by race, gender, and class, which accidental facts, though they need not be essentialized into universal categories, do beg some kind of recognition.

I am not suggesting that scholarship in the humanities today is a ghetto of identity politics. Yet while a person in Flexner’s day might have preferred to appreciate Romare Bearden’s paintings for their stylistic mastery of purely formal properties, was he or she expected to forget that the painter was African American?

Proponents of historically dead notions like “art for art’s sake” seem in hindsight to have buried their heads innocently in the sand. How is it possible for the Institute’s credo of knowledge for its own sake to remain politically value-free today? Knowledge in the humanities may be inevitably inflected by race, gender, and class, which accidental facts, though they need not be essentialized into universal categories, do beg some kind of recognition. Scholars in the humanities do discharge a debt owed to the free society that has made their work possible, whether that work be a queer reading of Paradise Lost or a feminist approach to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Like the performance of a musical score, therein lies, perhaps, the undreamt utility of an epic by Milton or a canvas by Picasso. That would be only one opinion, of course, rather than fact or knowledge, but what’s the difference?


Abraham Flexner | The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge | With a companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf | Princeton University Press. | 93 pp. | 2017 | ISBN 978–0–691–17476–1 | More about this book

William Moeck is professor of English and coordinator of the Multidisciplinary Courses (MDC) Project at Nassau Community College (SUNY). Among other publications, he is the author of Charles Dickens: A Key to His Characters.

Like what you read? Give Carnegie Corporation a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.