Resurgent Useless Knowledge & The Joy of a Burning Brain


Vishnu and Pals

Hey, I remember you guys!

For many years, my grandfather would constantly tell me, “That’s one thing they can never take away from you. Your education.” I never asked who they were, although the way he said it implied that they were very intent on taking anything and everything else, and that also maybe they were waiting just outside. And if they were the kind of people who wanted to mug me, that maybe they would also take a bat to my head and there goes my education.

But I got his point.

My grandfather was an exceedingly generous man, and as his only grandson he was endlessly proud of everything I did and every dumb thing I ever said. I think, sometimes, that this statement was meant to be reassuring to me through my university years and the ones just beyond. The years where I realized that I had studied a lot of things that weren’t going to be terribly useful to life or gaining a career.  The years where I started to get a little academic’s remorse, as I considered my future and how the words “Starbucks barrista” fit into it.This statement was meant to encourage me to find my education fulfilling, as I would surely be sustaining myself on a pulpy milkshake I could make from old manuscripts and printer ink.

The things I studied in university were, of course, incredibly interesting to me. I felt intellectually alive, afire with ideas and thoughts and new connections. I felt like I had a view on the world as I studied religion, a more honed sense of how cultures worked; with psychology I felt like I had a better grasp of who people were and how they got on with life. Around the edges I jammed in bits of mythology courses, tales of old gods, bits and pieces of language study. Here and there I managed to fit in the pulpier courses from the English department, the second-year classes focused on graphic novels or horror or science fiction, where I could read the kind of books I wanted and be rewarded with a higher GPA as a result.

Even as I logged hours and hours into perfecting my Works Cited list into honed gems of APA style, as I checked dozens of commentaries out of the library and watched grainy 1980s Indian television versions (with attendant 1980s Indian special effects), even as I poured my blood and sweat and all of my intellect into this kind of study, I felt vaguely aware that it was probably a useless endeavour. I had an inkling then of the likely direction of my career path, of how this kind of academia was only going to be a brief dalliance in my life. I didn’t care. Having a reason to think, and to think deep, was worth it.

Of course, it would be hard to sustain myself entirely with self-satisfaction through my adult years, and thus I had to put away my childish things. Childish things, in my case, were 20-page papers on the effects of Buddhist-influenced mindfulness meditation on positive and negative affect and a growing bulk of religious texts.

I went into education, happy that I might be able to set a few other three-alarm fires in young, burgeoning noggins. Maybe I could kindle flames in other brains, push them into their own forest fires of knowledge and study. They, too, could one day spelunk new depths of highly specific information with not a great deal of particular relevance to their lives.

I felt certain that most of my university-grown understandings of the world were meant to recede. The things I had gained were for me alone, were to be locked up in the vaults deep within my cortex and brought to the surface only when I felt like rummaging around in the attic of my life. I had a job, and I had responsibilities and goals and also the need to pay for university.

It is strange, then, for little bubbles of knowledge to float to the surface, for the things I know to rush forward and suddenly be useful again. When I stumble into Hindu religious festivals or spend hours tromping through local mosques and temples, all of those years hunched over commentaries on the Qur’an or scrawling elaborate treatises on forms of modern Hindu thought seem valid and worthwhile. When I speak with the psychological counsellor at my school and can reference studies in appropriate APA format, can discuss the things I studied from years of child development psychology, my years of formal study become rapidly less embarrassing.

All of my useless knowledge isn’t so useless after all!

And sometimes, even when it seems just as useless as it has always been, I realize that maybe I still don’t really care. I spent two years of my life logging hours into learning Korean, a language spoken largely in one country by about 45 million people, and one that is not exactly taking the world by storm. Would I kick myself now if I never spoke this language again, if the need never arose? Would my hours of honing my skill, of putting my nose to the grindstone, of memorizing and thinking and practicing suddenly become worthless?

My grandfather, comforting as he was trying to be, seems more right today than I realized as a teenager. That my education was worthwhile because it was my education, that the things I found worthy of study and exploration are worthy because I thought them so. Knowledge isn’t always going to put bread on the table, but is that the only metric by which to measure its value?

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15 thoughts on “Resurgent Useless Knowledge & The Joy of a Burning Brain

  1. The joy of education is that it never stops. It expands into new areas to explore, new places to see, new faces to know. We constantly learn lessons from people everyday. It is said that we never really know a subject until we teach it to someone else,and that, I have found, is true in teaching English, both writing and literature. Onward and upward!

  2. Wow- you took the words right out of my mouth! I am always concerned that my education is going to be useless. In my case it is my husband who has always encouraged me and told me to value knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Excellent post 🙂

  3. Great thoughts and very thought provoking…………. we get an education from our surroundings and things that seem useless at times become very meaningful in life…………… keep at it and learn because nobody can erase them from your mind.

  4. Man, this whole thing, and especially the intro and closing, really resonates with me…because I’m majoring in Philosophy.

    (Except that I’ve been conditioned to format things in Chicago style, as if its objective superiority, before which all others must weep, goes without saying.)

    • My best friends in Korea were philosophy and English majors, so we all were well familiar with how not-particular money-making our choices were. I feel you.

      (Never had to use Chicago. Psych department obviously wanted APA, and Religion wanted MLA. I never interacted with a department that wanted Chicago, although I would have liked to try, if only for the nerdiness of an academic hat trick.)

  5. Well if you have an OCT certification, education continues indefinetly, yay AQ’s! Where does it all lead, not sure.

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