Every teacher has heard the repeated and tiresome cant, “Why do we have to learn this? When are we ever going to need/use this?” Such student complaints are most common, perhaps in the liberal arts, including history and literature, but can be heard across most of the curriculum.Friendship, Art, and Virtue: In Defense of the Useless
Unfortunately, I do not think that those of us in the liberal arts do a very good job answering the complaint. Too often the first reaction to being told “This isn’t useful, why will we ever need it?” is to immediately try to reply, “No, no, this is actually very useful because, uhhh… critical thinking skills, analysis and interpretation, uh…uh… law school!” or some such. The impulse and answers are not entirely wrong; many liberal arts majors, for instance, are indeed a solid preparation for law school, but I think the response is inadequate and weak. It concedes that which should not be conceded, namely, the meaning of “useful.”
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol contains an illuminating example. Scrooge’s nephew has just burst into Scrooge’s counting house to make his annual, futile attempt to persuade his uncle to join him for Christmas dinner. Scrooge, however, is immovable. Of Christmas he snarls: “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you.” To which his nephew gives the stirring reply:
There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew; “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin… –as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
What “use” is Christmas, Scrooge asks? His nephew’s brilliant reply does not attempt to protest that Christmas really is useful; he understands his uncle, and Christmas, too well. He knows what his uncle means by “useful.” Will it make me rich? To which Scrooge’s nephew cheerfully concedes that Christmas isn’t useful, in that sense, at all. But it still has done him good.
A similar example can be found in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The crew of the Dawn Treader is about to sail through a great darkness that terrifies all the men. All the men, but not all creatures on the boat. The Captain asks,“But what manner of use would it be ploughing through that blackness?” But if the men were frightened, the indomitable mouse, Reepicheep was not. And he gives the proper reply:
“Use?” replied Reepicheep. “Use, Captain? If by use you mean filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be no use at all. So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventures. And here is as great an adventure as ever I heard of, and here, if we turn back, no little impeachment of all our honours.
The sense is the same as Dickens. If by useful, we mean, will it put food in my stomach and money in my purse, then we must cheerfully concede that some things will be of no use at all. But they are still worth doing, nonetheless.
And it is not hard to think of such things that exist. One important such thing C.S. Lewis mentioned in his book, The Four Loves, was friendship. In a purely utilitarian sense, of course, friendship has little value at all. Indeed, this may be partly why friendship seems to be so much in decline in our increasingly utilitarian world. The friendship of Jonathan and David brought them both little profit in material terms. But, of course, that was never the point of their friendship. Such things, C.S. Lewis said, have little survival value, but what they do is add value to survival.
Art is another such thing. G.K. Chesterton called art the “signature of man.” It does not make us richer, it hardly seems useful at all. When funding gets short, it is always the first thing cut from school budgets. And yet, how poorer would our world be without the great works of art, whether painting, sculpture, architecture, or literature. We could survive just as easily, perhaps, without the Mona Lisa, Shakespeare, Paradise Lost, the great Gothic Cathedrals, and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But it would be a poorer world.
Finally, we might add one more: the moral life or the life of virtue. This certainly has little survival value. Indeed, it may even put one’s survival at risk. It will often not make one richer and may make one poorer. It will not give a man status or position. Robert Bolt’s St. Thomas More once reminded his daughter, “if virtue brought profit, common sense would make us saints.” And yet the moral life is surely one worth living.
We reject the utilitarianism that holds only the “useful” is valuable. Instead, we must stubbornly hold, with Scrooge’s nephew and with Reepicheep, that some things are worth doing not as a means to wealth, power, or comfort, but as an end in themselves. Some things are worthwhile simply because it is in their nature to be so; some things are Good, True, and Beautiful and we should esteem them and want them. And if we don’t, well, the “fault dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.”
Indeed, if a man be of religious bent (as we are), he might go even further and see the good and the beautiful as signposts that point us to God’s carefully ordered creation and to the existence of Eternity. For the beauty in this world is only a pale shadow or imitation of that which, God willing, we will see someday.
Maybe our answer to “When will we ever need this?” should be something like this:
When will you need to know about baroque art? Or Shakespeare’s plays and iambic pentameter, and the building of the medieval Cathedrals? Well, someday you might like to impress a young lady with something other than push-ups, but beyond that, you will never need to know about them at all. But you should want to. Human life can’t always be surrounded by the bland, the inane, the ugly, and the mediocre. We need to see and appreciate things simply because they are good and we should be good ourselves. We need to appreciate the true and beautiful because we have minds to know and love them. And if these things have never put a scrap of gold or silver in our pockets, we believe that they have done us good, and will do us good, and we say, “God bless them!”