In 1921 when Einstein first visited America, he encountered Edison through a questionnaire. A theoretical physicist and a practical inventor, both pre-eminent in their fields—it would have been interesting if the two men had actually met, but apparently they never did. The questionnaire was one that Edison would give to anyone who aspired to work for him, and at a press conference a reporter presented it to Einstein. It consisted of about a hundred and fifty questions. Among them were: Who invented logarithms? What are leucocytes? Which U.S. city makes the most laundry machines? What is the distance from the earth to the sun? The purpose of the questionnaire was to weed out those, the typical liberal arts graduates, who wouldn’t be able to answer most of the questions. Edison scorned and was dismissive of these types. ‘I wouldn’t give a penny for the ordinary college graduate, ’ he said, ‘...except those from institutes of technology. They aren’t filled up with Latin, philosophy and the rest of that ninny stuff.’ Answering the questionnaire had become something of a preoccupation with many. One man sought police protection on the grounds that people were after the book in which he had written his answers.

As for Einstein, his response to the reporter was that he did not bother to carry around information in his head that could be had at any time out of a book. He also said that people didn’t need to go to college to accumulate facts: a liberal arts education trained the mind to think.

This is comforting for someone who is not a graduate of an institute of technology. Yet there is a dual challenge here: Edison’s— that the rest of us are steeped in inherently useless ninny stuff; and, implicitly, Einstein’s —to what extent is one engaged with the business of learning how to think, and, especially as a teacher, in facilitating this process for others? (Or to what extent, instead, is one confined—despite a liberal arts education, maybe—to the relative ease of facts; and facts, at that, apparently less useful than the kind Edison was concerned with?) It seems to me that the second challenge is primarily a matter for individual introspection, but that the first—Edison’s—can be addressed in more or less general terms.

One way to do it is to speculate what Edison (whose name I now use, perhaps unjustly, to represent the demand that education serve pragmatic, utilitarian goals) would make of some of the ‘pure’ disciplines, i.e. those that feel no need to justify themselves on grounds of utility (and might be hard put to do so anyhow); and then to consider some other possible grounds that seem meaningful.

What, for instance, would Edison make of mathematics? Math of course is demonstrably useful, not only for our daily accounts, building a bridge or putting mankind on the moon (was that useful, it might be asked), but also in less obvious ways. For instance it exposes the mind to the uses of logic and the benefits of cogency, and thus helps foster one aspect of intelligence. But much of mathematics, one is told, is useless, or only incidentally useful, since the purest mathematicians are not concerned with ‘use’ at all (except in the restricted sense that their work must take mathematics itself further). Perhaps someone who has barely scraped the subject should not say this, but it is not meant as a criticism. And it is said on good authority: G.H. Hardy in A Mathematician’s Apology claims that he is ‘interested in mathematics only as a creative art’. He goes on to consider the utility of math and to conclude that useful math is both dull and relatively trivial.

Hardy also denies that the person ‘doing’ math, or science, is primarily concerned with utility, or with any lofty ideal such as being useful to mankind. He suggests other possibilities, such as that the person might not be particularly good at anything else, and that at any rate what he is doing is harmless (which might seem an odd justification, until one remembers that he was writing at a time when war was both a horrific memory and a looming presence). Perhaps his more thought-provoking reasons have to do with creativity and beauty, but of these more later.

What would Edison make of ‘pure’ science? For that matter, what would he make of Einstein himself? Einstein never bothered to claim that his work was meant to benefit mankind, or that at its heart was any form of altruism. There might have been in some of his humanitarian concerns, such as with the plight of Jews around the world and the new, embattled Jewish state, or with global disarmament—but not in his scientific work. We now know that quantum mechanics, for instance, has myriad applications ranging from lasers to superconductivity, but was this what impelled the scientists who initially contributed to the field, Einstein among them? The evidence suggests that it wasn’t.

What was it, then? One might mention the usual things that motivate people to do whatever they are doing, some more mundane than others: aptitude, ambition, ego, the need to make a living, and also interest, curiosity, the joy of discovery, passion. Someone asked Einstein what made him different from other people, and he replied that he didn’t think that he was different in any significant way; but that he was intensely curious, and that he couldn’t let go of a question once it came into his mind. Thus we have the image of the world-famous genius, slightly eccentric (as genius tends to be) ploughing a lonely furrow in his attempts to establish that the world is fundamentally deterministic and that, after all, the Almighty does not play dice; and in the attempt, also vain, to explain everything through a single set of equations.

Curiosity, and a compulsive need to explain phenomena and establish connections between them, might not be the primary urges behind all scientific work, but they seem, historically, to underlie the lives and work of the best scientists, those whom Hardy, a cricket enthusiast, would have placed in the ‘Bradman’ class. It would seem that for many of these people the practical benefits of their work was at best a distant consideration.

Consider, too, the physicist Richard Feynman, whose interest in things extended to the behaviour of ants in his bedroom and bathroom. He describes (in Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!) the experiments he conducted to establish, among other things, how ants communicate and whether they have a sense of ‘geometry’. This entailed curiosity, watchfulness, patience, a certain playfulness, and had no obvious practical use (except that Feynman’s discoveries enabled him to divert the ants away from his larder)...Ninny stuff, certainly! You might object that this was not his real work, his serious research. Possibly, but by his own admission it seems that the same qualities underlay his ‘serious’ work as well. He speaks, for instance, after the war and his stint at Los Alamos, of the difficulties he experienced as a young professor at Cornell, in returning to ‘pure’ research. It was as if he was ‘burned out’. He reflected on it: ‘Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing —it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with...’ He resolved that he would again play with physics. Soon afterwards in the cafeteria he noticed something interesting in the way a plate that was tossed in the air wobbled, and decided to investigate the ‘equations of wobbles’. This investigation led by degrees to work that won him the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Another class of people interested in the connections between things is poets. What, one wonders, would Edison make of them? Elaborate defences of poetry—and art, in general—have been concocted ever since Plato determined that his republic would have no place for poets: not only did they lead youth astray by misrepresenting the gods, but their meanderings were too removed from reality. And what about the more familiar but perhaps related charge that their work is of no practical use? At this point, I would like to quote a poem:


The roaring alongside he takes for
granted, and that every so often the world
is bound to shake.

He runs, he runs to the south, finical,
awkward, in a state of controlled panic, a
student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a
sheet of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.

He runs, he runs straight through it,
watching his toes.

Watching, rather, the spaces of sand
between them, where (no detail too small)
the Atlantic drains rapidly backwards and
downwards. As he runs, he stares at the
dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide is
higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you

His beak is focused; he is preoccupied.
Looking for something, something,

Poor bird, he is obsessed!

The millions of grains are black, white,
tan and grey, mixed with quartz grains,
rose and amethyst.

[Elizabeth Bishop]

(The following lines from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence might help explain why this bird is ‘a student of Blake’)

To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

What is it that brings me back to Bishop’s poem, each time with a frisson of anticipation and excitement? Is it the deceptive simplicity? Is it the way all the senses are tingled when the beach ‘hisses like fat’? Is it the way the ‘interrupting water comes and goes’, leaving the world either a mist or ‘minute and vast and clear’? Is it, in fact, this perception of minuteness and vastness together, as befits a student of Blake? Or is it the bird, ‘finical, awkward, in a state of controlled panic’, its vulnerability as it trips alongside the ‘roaring’ ocean offset by its preoccupation, its determined search for ‘something, something, something’? Is it the way no detail is too small for the bird—and for the poet—or the way I seem to feel the sand eroding under my toes when it ‘stares at the dragging grains’?

It is all this, and more. More than anything else, for me, it is how a poem about a bird is also, unobtrusively, about the poet; and is, further, each time I read it, about myself as well. By some sleight of hand the poet draws herself, her subject and her reader into one movement. One might call this drawing together ‘empathy’, a quality that it seems to me is at the heart of poetry.

‘So what?’ my caricature Edison might ask. Simply this, that briefly but surely, barriers are down; without any effort of the will connections are established, or rather there is nothing to be connected to; one thing is everything, a grain of sand is the world. Through the experience of the poem one comes upon a remarkable connectedness. To dismiss it as a trick of the imagination is too facile. The three—artist, subject, onlooker—being drawn together is a real experience, as when a dancer evokes the flight of a bird in herself, and even you, watching her, feel the tug and press of the wind and the sudden ease when it is mastered in flight. I like to think—but do not know— that something similar underlies all art.

To return, now, to the mathematician, Hardy. We have already known him say that his concern with mathematics is as a ‘creative art’. He reiterates this towards the end of his book: ‘I have never done anything “useful”... Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating.’ How is this to be decided—whether something created was worth creating or not—if one is not applying, for the time being, the obvious standard of usefulness?

One answer comes from Hardy himself: ‘A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns….The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.’ I am not able myself to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly in mathematics, but I find this compelling: this insistence on beauty. Perhaps it is common to the highest work in mathematics, science, poetry—the creation of something beautiful, or the coming upon of beauty; beauty understood and defined differently within each field and yet sharing certain common traits, including a strange interplay between simplicity and complexity. This is not the place to explore what beauty means, but it seems inseparable from the human experience. When one perceives beauty, for instance, one participates in it: that harmony of colour, or form, or pattern, or words, or sounds, and that simplicity that isn’t innocent of complexity, seems to enter into one’s being. Here, too, is empathy. Usually it doesn’t last, perhaps because the moment of perception gets overlaid by familiarity. Yet we do know it, at least temporarily.

And it may be here that we find a deep response to the charge of uselessness. There are two levels to this response. First, the charge need not be answered at all, or rather there is no charge to be answered. ‘Your work, your study, has no utility’, can be accepted simply as a statement of fact. It need not be taken as an accusation (even if it is meant as one) and one need not strive to counter it. Any deep and sustained engagement is its own justification. At the very least, as Hardy put it, it is likely to be ‘harmless’—and that is something. To say that it is egotistical or isolating or unfeeling begs the question: much apparently useful work is equally so. And, as I’ve tried to show, the encountering of beauty is involved in the business. Why need this have utility?

There is a second level to this response that in some ways I find more satisfying, because it answers the charge on its own terms. There is a utility even in non-utilitarian enquiry, for there are practical benefits to be had from it. These do not accrue through any prior design but are inherent in the kind of pursuits being considered. The willingness to give rein to curiosity and to the exploration of a question; the discovery, unplanned, of connections between phenomena and between oneself and things ‘outside’; the empathy that sometimes happens when something is given attention; the coming upon of beauty through a creative act: all these need no justification, but are also, it seems to me, deeply ‘useful’.

What is the nature of this ‘use’? For one, that these activities are not divisive, and since they are not, that they engender a connectedness. Poets, scientists, mathematicians, and the like, need not be tied down by ethnic, communal or even national identities, nor by limited objectives. Their pursuits are essentially human and universal and open-ended, and they communicate across barriers of identity. In other words their discourse is not limited to their place, or even to their time. This may not be true for all of them, but I think it is true for the best. And it is potentially true of all activity of this kind.

Is there a model here, for what human interaction more generally might be? When the quality of one’s engagement with life is fundamentally enquiring and tentative, rather than result-oriented and intrusive, it may lead to a more compassionate understanding of other people, of the needs of the natural world, and indeed of oneself. This is obviously not to say that scientists and artists are invariably more compassionate, or at peace with themselves, than other human beings (far from it). It should also be obvious that one is not decrying the work of practical people, inventors among them. (It is worth recalling that Einstein at the time of his seminal 1905 papers was engaged with eminently practical tasks at the Patent Office in Zurich. And where would we be without, for instance, Edison’s bulb?) The point is that there is an alternative to a narrowly utilitarian approach to learning, and this alternative is of importance and deserves to be explored. What is at issue is the developing or the refining of a sensibility, the nurturing of another aspect (or aspects, rather) of human intelligence. This has implications for a phenomenon like the hold of group identities (ethnic, religious, national, etc.) over the individual. It also may influence one’s outlook on humanity’s wilful and increasingly reckless degrading of the environment. At the very least it must have a bearing on the way one relates to people, including the children in one’s care as a parent or as a teacher.

This brings me to a final point. Surely the issues being considered are of special relevance to educators? The bulk of our educational resources are directed towards acquiring professional skills, and this is increasingly so. The notion that education must primarily serve the immediate material needs of the community is deep-rooted and, if one may say so, pernicious. It rests on a narrow understanding of what these needs are, and perhaps is not being challenged sufficiently. If education is to serve narrowly utilitarian—or ideological—ends, its role in fostering intelligence would be severely restricted. We see this happening already, with the emphasis in most educational systems being on achievement rather than awareness (and awareness, if at all, as a means to achievement). Creativity and beauty (whatever we understand by these terms: they need to be unfolded) and leisure and open-endedness, have a diminishing role in our priorities. These are not luxuries falling by the wayside. One might even say, with only a touch of hyperbole, that their revival has a bearing on the well-being of all life on earth.

Einstein implied that the function of a liberal arts education is to teach us how to think—and, one might add, how to feel. There is a challenge here, and it is not at all certain that we are meeting it. If ninny stuff can help us do this, its decline—in educational institutions, in the publishing industry and public libraries, and in global consciousness—must surely be a matter for serious reflection.

Scientists in their quest for certitude and proof tend to reject the marvellous.

[Jacques Cousteau, quoted from ‘Unknown Man’ by Yatri]