Saturday, January 31, 2015

Thank goodness for the 'useless'

I was talking today with an older man. He would be at least ten years older than me. For my part I had assumed my grumpy-old-man persona and was bemoaning the fact that pretty soon (if it’s not already the case) no one will have heard of DH Lawrence (for instance). He responded by saying, ‘Good! What’s the point of literature anyway? I could never understand it.’

He was reflecting a very common, probably dominantly male (and perhaps Australian) attitude that only ‘practical’ things matter. Hammers and nails. It’s an idea that our politicians and society in general has pretty much swallowed: that for something to have value it has to be ‘useful’. The only value of any importance is practical value, often reduced to monetary value.

I managed to call upon my civilised self and refrain from punching him in the nose. But what he said triggered a thought process.

I love science. I love mathematics. I love the processes of logic. But, as I look back over my education and my life in general, I recognise that the things that have shaped me—have shaped me—are those pointless things like literature, art, music and philosophy. They have made me who I am, not the practical things. Of course I need all the practical skills to cope with life and society; but what has given me my values, what has coloured the way I see life and think about the world, is the ‘useless’ things.

Without these useless things human beings would be diminished, and our society severely impoverished. Indeed, are we not there already? We have made great progress towards developing artificial intelligence. Soon there will be human-like robots walking the earth. And, when we look closely, we will see that they are us.


  1. Thank you for sharing these thoughts! I definitely agree that the "useless" or "impractical" things are often vital parts of our personal formation. I know that without the years listening to my parents read me books by C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and many others, I wouldn't be who I am today. Without the years I spent dancing and playing the flute, I wouldn't know how disciplined I am capable of being. I think that we are creative creatures, and those outlets both form us and offer ways for us to get to know ourselves!

  2. Hammers and nails are important in that they provide us with sheltered havens in which to dream, to create, to philosophize. Embracing the "impractical" is essential to intellectual development and social well being. Long story short, the pen will always be mightier than the IPhone.