The utility of useless ideas

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“What is Gauss’s theorem going to do for my career?” I said to myself. 

As we once again get back into the swing of academic life, I find myself trying to knock out requirements and line up a schedule that will look ideal on paper. Of course, this may be a typical naïve frosh move. Perhaps I should study what interests me instead of what impresses or satisfies someone else’s definition of necessity. Perhaps my insistence on taking certain classes is a blinding indicator that I have not yet switched off high school mode. During those four years, I remember being perpetually paranoid, terrified of the prospect that my test scores in a class would plummet or I would not make the cut for an accelerated track. Now that those fears are gone, why do I still behave in the same way?

There are thousands of courses to take here at the University, and I find myself lucky to be someone who will evolve and experience just a fraction of everything that is offered. However, I am of the opinion that it is too dangerous to get in the mindset that you should only do what you love. It’s a common adage to do what you love, and for the most part, I agree, but I do find a tinge of falsehood in there as well. There is an important distinction to be made between skill and talent. A singer can improve their craft, but it’s not really a reality for them to swap out their vocal range for another. Additionally, some people are simply born into conditions where they have to prioritize financial stability over well-being or satisfaction. It’s an unfortunate reality. Students ought to be aware of what their limitations are so they have better insights into the places where they can best contribute their abilities. However, only the student can determine what he or she is capable of. To let anyone else determine that is also dangerous.

Mark Twain once supposedly said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” After many years of compulsory education, I have found, many students with great potential lose interest in learning before they stumble upon what really makes them tick. Honestly, I have felt this way for a good chunk of my life, vaguely indifferent about school, ready to move onto something else. This is a sentiment that I still have not resolved, but I still think that using innate passion is a powerful method. For instance, when I taught financial literacy at underserved middle schools a few years ago, after asking questions to the students and learning about their livelihoods, interests and aspirations, I encouraged the students to conduct research on their computers about what they wanted to be someday. Once I tuned into topics with which they were familiar, it was as if they already knew what I was teaching them because I could speak in their own terms. No longer was learning a chore because now the theory had use. However, I think finding utility is only the first step. The fact that it takes that many intellectual contortions to make learning worthwhile says something about our society, the hustle and bustle of perpetually trying to convert our experiences into material success instead of enjoyment. 

The Ancient Greeks studied conic sections as pure math, and there weren’t any commercial incentives behind it. But because of those seemingly useless contributions, roughly 2,000 years later this knowledge helped describe planetary orbits in Newtonian physics. Likewise, the discovery of quirky phenomena of electricity and magnetism centuries ago set the stage for modern quantum mechanics, which will eventually allow for a new breed of computers and perhaps teleportation someday. Number theory seems like intellectual horseplay until someone needs it to encrypt a credit card transaction. General and special relativity seem like ideas that only matter on the edge cases of physics until both are called into play in the development of GPS. I say this all to point out that you never really know when something is going to be useful, so never stop being a student. I plan to find something interesting to learn in everything — because it’s there — even if it seems trivial at first. And I believe this can be the case for any discipline, not just STEM. Seemingly, it is commonly believed that science is something that happens on a higher moral or spiritual ground, that we should leave things to the scientists and engineers, and they’ll create wonderful innovations. However, science, like anything else really, is an extension of human culture and is richly interwoven with politics, religion and economics as such. Thus, it’s not just about the numbers. It’s about the people.

Diving into the “useless” ideas in the classroom is not about the answer. And no, it’s not about the journey either. It’s about developing critical thinking and identifying compelling intersections between the different approaches and aspirations of your colleagues. It is possible that I will look back on this conclusion with laughter in the future, but I know that I certainly won’t regret being open to where the educational process takes me.

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Matthew Turk is a writer for The Stanford Daily. Contact Matthew at news ‘at’ stanford.daily.com.