The Usefulness of “Useless” Knowledge

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Back in 1939, Alexander Flexner wrote an article in Harper’s magazine entitled The usefulness of useless knowledge. Flexner is a famous education reformer and founder and first director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Its faculty members include scholars such as Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, John von Neumann, and George Kennan. It was striking that the content of the article was still so timely after more than 75 years!

This is the opening paragraph:

usefulness of useless knowledge

After reading the article, there were two things that crept up and kept gnawing. First, the current Dutch State Secretary for Education, Sander Dekker, has been expressing a strong urge for applied research. In this he is not much different than those in high political positions in other countries. This is quite a popular thing to say in general and in this specific case, the…

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