Useful

by zunguzungu

John McCumber is so incredibly right in this piece on “useful” education:

[The so-called “useful” courses] communicate predictable expertise: a specific database; and some rules for operating on that database. That is what you get from courses in fields like biology, accounting, computer science, and so on. And because of this specificity, you know the conditions under which such a course will be useful. It is their specificity which makes them predictable. You do not get such specific knowledge from humanities courses, and so their usefulness cannot be predicted. But to conclude that, because you cannot know how and when a humanities course will be useful to you, that therefore it is not useful–that is what I think is downright dangerous.

The problem with expertise is that the data and the rules it is based on can become obsolete, and that this can happen in a second. Examples abound…

These were all cases of what I call “basic rule changes”—those moments when the facts of one’s field change and all one’s rules for operating with those facts become outdated, obsolete, and, in a word, useless. When you are confronted with such a rule change, all your specific knowledge is—useless. So, what do you need?

…A basic rule change, by its very nature, cannot be predicted; if it could, we would have rules for it. So the humanities are not predictably useful. But when a basic rule change comes—and they do come—the humanities are incredibly useful.

They are all that is useful. In October, 1987, the stock market did what all the rules and experts had said was impossible (actually they hadn’t “said” it because nobody had ever thought enough about it to rule it out): the Dow Jones average fell by almost 600 points in one day. On that day, people sat at their computers, on Wall Street and else where, and watched hundred of billions of dollars simply disappear. Not only was there no way to make money off that falling market, as the rules tell you that you can. There was no way even to slow your losses: the standard techniques for limiting exposure simply failed to work. They sat there, frozen to their screens, and watched.

…And when you finally get to the biggest rule change of all…The one we philosophers spend our lives practicing for… Well: there are many stories of captains of industry on their deathbeds, saying that they really should have followed that youthful flair and become a poet or an artist. There is no recorded case of a poet or artist, on their deathbed, saying they wished they had become a captain of industry. No dying person has ever said, “Gee, I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” Nobody has said—“Wow! I read way too much Aristotle and Goethe—I could have made it into another tax bracket!”

Read the whole thing.