“Eustace Clarence Scrubb, or as we like to call him: Useless Clarence Scrubb”Posted: May 31, 2011
I almost always smell a book before reading it. Old books, new books, shiny-paged books: you can tell them apart by their scent. Really old books contain more than just that familiar old book smell though; the fungi that grow on such books are likely a source of hallucinogens. So crazy old academics? Maybe they’ve just spent a little too much time in the library.
I’m not entirely sure where I first heard the above (the link is just from a quick google search to make sure I hadn’t made the fact up). When I first began thinking about writing this essay, I realized I wasn’t sure exactly what I would define as ‘useless’ knowledge. Isn’t all knowledge valuable in some way? Isn’t it always useful? After all, the fact above is interesting and affords me some sense of pleasure in knowing and relating the information. This is still a use, if not a particularly great one. Therein lies the key to my dilemma.
According to certain youtube sources one can define knowledge as either informational or educational. The former is a collection of facts that may give you an understanding of a very small aspect of some broader subject. While it would take a lifetime and more to understand any subject completely, educational – or ‘useful’ – knowledge provides the context for that information such that one can comprehend a the subject complexly. Maybe this is obvious to you, but at first it wasn’t to me.
For instance, my recent obsession with Korean dramas means that I know (roughly) how to say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I love you’ in Korean, but lacking an understanding of pronunciation, grammar or any other vocabulary I can’t actually use that knowledge to speak to a Korean. It’s useless in a real-world setting.
As I said before, useless knowledge often offers hints to the whole. I know that the word ‘evil’ used to mean ‘uppity’ and ‘nice’ meant ‘mean’. If I knew nothing else about historical linguistics, I would understand from this fact that language changes over time. I wouldn’t understand how it changes, why it changes, or why this is significant, but perhaps simply being interested in this fact would prompt me to seek out its background. Even if it doesn’t, I know more about language than I did before.
I was in Tech I this past semester. I loved it. Especially the Newton project. A lot of the things I learned about Newton during the project would be categorized as useless knowledge. It’s not really important to know that he and Hooke disliked each other, or that he was not very nice to Leibnitz. But Newton seems less like a historical figure and more like an actual person to me now. Consequently, his discoveries and work hold more interest (for me).
I think the danger of informational knowledge is that you may begin to think you understand something totally when you really only know a very little bit about that subject. The internet is rife with examples of such people. And, in writing this essay, I think I’m beginning understand the idea that the more you know the less you actually know…maybe.
NB: The name of this post is a quotation from some children I know. It has to do with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It doesn’t totally make sense for this post, but I don’t really care.