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A Celebration of the Impracticality of Knowledge

By Samuel Richter '20, Staff Writer

· Samuel Richter

By now, you’ve probably heard about the decline of cursive or the fall of the analogue clock. The standard narrative is that these once-necessary skills have become unimportant in the age of technology. However, this narrative is too simplistic to explain the changes. Indeed, it seems like the widespread use of computers hasn’t made cursive obsolete any more than typewriters, print letters, or ball-point pens already did, and the digital clock certainly existed before the invention of smartphones. For this reason, cursive writing and analogue clocks are not falling out of popularity wholly because of their impracticality; for the most part, they are falling out of popularity because people no longer value them.

Even so, this devaluation is not complete; there are many people who would hate to see analogue clocks and cursive go. After all, there are aesthetic reasons for keeping them around. Many people prefer the look of an analogue watch, and cursive, with its slanted loops, can often resemble art. Yet, these justifications do not seem strong enough to warrant devoting an elementary school’s precious time and resources to teaching students how to read a clock or write in cursive. Recognizing this, analogue clock and cursive advocates instead reference the utilitarian benefits of learning these skills. In this way, the skills’ instrumental use becomes more important than their inherent values. Children shouldn’t learn how to read a clock because reading clocks is good; they should learn how to read clocks because it helps them learn the basics of mathematics or division. Similarly, students shouldn’t learn cursive so that they can read and write in cursive; they should learn it because the repetitive writing process helps develop their literacy skills.

In addition to this instrumental value, a moral value is inscribed onto the skill. Social critics use the decline of cursive writing or analogue clocks to push hyperbolic theories about upcoming generations being lazier, less patient, or less smart that previous ones. Older generations see these skills as being instrumental in growing up, so learning the skills becomes enshrined as a rite of passage. According to this belief, the loss of these skills does not simply represent shifts in public preferences, it represents an impending moral degeneracy. As a result, the true value of these skills is determined by their practical and moral effects, not in the value of the skills themselves. When state governments reinstated cursive in the classrooms after the institution of Common Core standards took it out, they made reference to these instrumental and moral values.

However, this understanding of a skill’s value unwillingly reinforces a dangerous logic surrounding public education: schools, being funded by the taxpayers, should provide a tangible service to society. Through this logic, public education becomes an investment where returns are expected. For this reason, all knowledge learned must contribute to the development of the citizen. In other words, if the skill does not improve the individual’s intellect or moral character, then it does not serve society, and therefore does not belong in school.

This logic did not begin with the declining use of cursive or analogue clocks. Rather, these low-stakes examples merely demonstrate how the interpretation of education’s purpose shapes our assessment of a particular skill’s value. Public schools across the country appeal to these same instrumental and moral values when determining whether or not to save or dismantle art classes, music programs, sports clubs, and recess. Taxpayers, politicians, school board members, and teachers are not the only ones who utilize these values, either. High school students love asking their math teachers when they will ever use calculus or the Pythagorean theorem in their daily lives. People from all age groups believe that the knowledge and skills gained through public education must serve a utilitarian or ethical purpose.

How do the math teachers respond to such questions? Do they insist that math should be learned because math is in itself important to learn? Perhaps, but such answers never satisfy the students asking these questions. Instead, math teachers often appeal to the fact that many technological, science, and business jobs rely on these same mathematic principles. Math is necessary for employment in all fields in one way or another. The implication is that knowledge and skills automatically demonstrate their instrumental and moral value when they successfully demonstrate their economic value, which reveals why understanding public education in terms of investment necessitates an economic valuation of knowledge or skills. Knowledge is only valuable when it is marketable to employers.

The economic value of education is most apparent when we make judgments regarding higher education. The American university system forces the individual to value learning in this way. Because the cost of attendance is so high, a university education can only be justified in terms of future earnings. Of course, this conception of university education works only for some fields of study; others are not valued in economic terms. However, rather than concluding that some things cannot be valued in this way, people are often tempted to conclude that these fields of study, particularly in the humanities, have no value. Recall when Senator Marco Rubio once said, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” Rubio seems to suggest that, because philosophers don’t make as much money as welders (which is itself a dubious claim), philosophy is less useful to society than welding. Likewise, learning how to weld is only useful because there is the potential to earn a good wage. When knowledge and skills are considered only in practical, economic terms, education is reduced to nothing but a means to an end.

It is exactly this type of thinking that prompted our own president to defend the humanities in a letter to the students. In this letter, President Daniels makes it clear that education has a non-economic, non-practical value. He argues that knowledge and education lead to personal enrichment. Yet even here, with constant references to becoming “more capable citizens” and “cultivating critical thinking, self-reflection, empathy, and tolerance”, the humanities have to prove their worth by demonstrating their moral value. Personal enrichment is only beneficial in proportion to how useful it is to the rest of society. Again, the knowledge is not valuable in-itself, but only in reference to the value it provides to taxpayers.

Thus, debates about the role of cursive and the analogue clock in contemporary society offer insight into the logic of education in American political society. Neither these skills nor any knowledge in particular can be pursued completely for their intrinsic value. Taxpayers are not funding a child’s education to foster personal growth, enrichment, or happiness; taxpayers are investing in the development of future citizens with the expectation that this investment will produce returns. Which raises a more important question: what kind of citizen is the education system trying to produce? If Rubio’s quotation is any indication, the unquestioning, complicit kind driven principally by economic decisions.

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