How Artists and Scientists Get Learning Right, Century After Century

I am a curious person. Abraham Flexner, an American education reform advocate born in the late nineteenth century, was also a curious person. His legacy is the Institute for Advanced Study, which is “one of the world’s leading centers for curiosity-driven basic research.” Flexner was founding director when the IAS opened in 1930 and he stayed in the role for nine years. Shortly after completing his directorship in June of 1939, Flexner wrote an article for Harper’s magazine titled “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” In his essay he considers the extent to which the curiosity of poets, artist and scientists contributes to, eventually and unexpectedly, some undreamed-of use in real-world applications. Using examples such as Heinrich Hertz and Michael Faraday, Flexner shows that these and other brilliant minds were driven by curiosity in their work and not by some anticipated future benefit of their findings. Flexner believed that the work of these scientific minds and their inquisitiveness opened the door for many ground-breaking products and developments of the inventors who followed—even many years later. While inventors tend to work with usefulness as their motive, earlier experimental thinkers like Hertz and Faraday had already uncovered information making the inventions possible.

In these examples and more, Flexner proves, as he states in his essay, “really great discoveries which had ultimately proved beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.” Not only do I recognize Flexner’s wisdom in his essay of 1939, but that his words are as relevant today as they were then.

There are others who agree with me in this assertion, too, including Princeton University Press. In March of 2017, Princeton Press re-released Flexner’s The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge as a hardcover book that includes a companion essay by current Institute of Advanced Study director, Robbert Dijkgraaf. Dijkgraaf says of the new hardback version: “It’s a pleasure to reacquaint myself with Flexner’s writing and be amazed with the relevance and importance of his ideas for the present.” Even Dijkgraaf, who’s well acquainted with the idea of curiosity-driven research at the IAS, seems surprised at how relevant Flexner’s words still are almost eighty years later.

In my own observations, curiosity-driven work is crucial in the development of future utility-based inventions. Let’s take the example of children. “Every child is an artist,” said Pablo Picasso, “the problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” What Picasso is proposing is that we all have the ability to see past utility and pursue certain activities merely for their own satisfaction; precisely the point that Flexner is proposing in his article. I see examples of this in my own children; a curiosity without the fear of being wrong or being judged. If my children choose to keep some of this innocent eagerness throughout their learning and into their careers, I’ll be a happy and proud father.

Flexner’s message of curious and creative thinking is being imitated in the twenty-first century by another education reform advocate; Sir Ken Robinson. In one of the most popular TED talks of all time, Robinson speaks directly to children’s education and curiosity. “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” That is, creativity as the pursuit of something strictly for the fun of it in a classroom setting. According to Robinson, the problems in today’s education system don’t end there. He goes on to say “you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that ... benign advice—now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution.” The education revolution that Robinson refers to is the same one Flexner envisioned in the 1930s. Robinson’s talk may be 67 years removed from Flexner’s essay but it’s in-tune with his ideas—and likely the reason that Robinson’s talk has had 47 million views since 2006.

Another mind who is celebrated for his curiosity is professor and astrophysicist Albert Einstein, who is well-known to follow his instincts rather than working toward developing products for immediate use. In fact, it was Flexner who brought Einstein to America to study at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study in 1933 and it was at the IAS that Einstein spent his time continuing to research his general theory of relativity. It has taken over a hundred years, but one aspect of Einstein’s theory was left unproven until February of 2016 when scientists heard, “the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago,” as reported by the New York Times. It may have taken a lifetime, but Einstein’s discovery is now one more tool that’s available to expand on for the purpose of utility when the inventors choose to do so.

These few examples only touch the surface of what’s possible with the curious musings of scientists like Hertz, Faraday and Einstein, or the curious nature of artists like Picasso and the child who’s given a chance to explore her talents and ambitions. We must think beyond utility when we think about learning. We must see exploratory learning as a long-term and influential contribution to society even if the benefits are not immediately recognizable. This encouragement toward a curious mind was important in 1939 when Flexner wrote about it, it continues to be important today and it will continue to be important when one of today’s children becomes the director of the Institute for Advanced Study—sometime around the year 2075.

  1. The Institute of Advanced Study website, Mission & History page. https://www.ias.edu/about/mission-history
  2. “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge” Harper’s magazine, Issue 179, October 1939.
  3. Princeton Press website: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge Book Trailer video, Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director, IAS. https://press.princeton.edu/titles/10924.html
  4. Website of Pablo Picasso https://www.pablopicasso.org/quotes.jsp
  5. Ken Robinson, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” TED Talk, https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity
  6. “Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory” New York Times website, February 11, 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/12/science/ligo-gravitational-waves-black-holes-einstein.html

Using Memories to Cope in the Present