Of “Possible Use” and “Permeated Minds”

I guess quite a few of you will already have read Abraham Flexner’s essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge“. Flexner was the founding Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and originally wrote the essay as a memo for thr General Education Board; he later used it as the basis for an address published in Harper’s Magazine in October 1939. If you are interested, you can use the links provided to request a full-text version of the article. [I was lucky enough to find an original, which I refer to below].

Flexner was seen as quite a radical educator, and his comments make interesting reading. Some quotes:

I am not for a moment suggesting that everything that goes on in laboratories will ultimately turn to some unexpected practical use or that an ultimate practical use is its actual justification. Much more am I pleading for the abolition of the word “use”, and for the freeing of the human spirit. To be sure, we shall thus free some harmless cranks. To be sure, we shall thus waste some precious dollars. But what is infinitely more important is that we shall be striking the shackles off the human mind and setting it free for the adventures which in our own day have, on the one hand, taken Hale and Rutherford and Einstein and their peers millions upon millions of miles into the uttermost realms of space and, on the other, loosed the boundless energy imprisoned in the atom. What Rutherford and others like Bohr and Millikan have done out of sheer curiosity in the effort to understand the construction of the atom has released forces which may transform human life; but this ultimate and unforseen and unpredictable practical result is not offered as a justification for Rutherford or Einstein or Millikan or Bohr or any of their peers. Let them alone. No educational administrator can possibly direct the channels in which these or other men shall work. It is not really so. All the waste that could be summed up in developing the science of bacteriology is as nothing compared to the advantages which have accrued from the discoveries of Pasteur, Koch, Ehrlich,  Theobald Smith, and scores of others — advantages that could never have accrued if the idea of possible use had permeated their minds.

I love that last line. “….could never have been accrued if the idea of possible use had permeated their minds.

I think it was Wernher von Braun who said “Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing”.  Many years later, Howard Schneiderman, who for many years ran R&D at Monsanto, said something along these lines:

When you turn down a request for funding an R&D project, you are right 90% of the time. That’s a far higher rate of decision accuracy than you get anywhere else, so you do it.

And that’s fine. Except for the 10% of the time you’re wrong. When you’re wrong, you lose the company.

I think there’s a thread through all this, a thread that links stuff like this to Polanyi’s Tacit Knowledge, continues through Gladwell’s Blink, even shows up in the various types of skunkworks extant in creative environments. Michael Schrage, in Serious Play, seems to take a similar view. And that view is this:

When we’re just messing around, much of the time we’re not really messing around; what we’re doing is releasing stuff we “know” but can’t articulate or express. This stuff is of real value. And there’s more. When we mess around, we also do away with some of the masks and anchors and frames that constrain our thinking, and as a result we can gain new insights.

That’s why I like blogging. The freewheeling, the musing, the messing around. The learning that takes place as a result. The provisional nature of the conversation. How people comment and take me on new journeys I would otherwise not have taken, a personal StumbleUpon.

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