The Importance of Being Useless

A piece by one of the most inspiring tutors I had at the then King Alfred’s College, Nigel Tubbs – who always challenged our thinking. I remember our first lecture with him (Education Studies), when he asked us to stand up (we did) “you’re a product of the educational system”. When he said it again, none of us stood up. Nigel repeats observation. The third time none of us knew quite what to do… read some of his challenges as to the purpose of education here:

Aristotle noted that the same ideas return in men’s minds, not once or twice but again and again. By the same token, does the recent introduction of named liberal arts degrees at the universities of Winchester, Exeter, Birmingham, Kent and King’s College London (and in the nascent independent Catholic Benedictus College) signal the return, again, of the ancient ideal of education as an end in itself? Put differently, and not pejoratively, does it mean the return of “useless” education?

In antiquity, a useless education was the highest and most noble form of education because it represented the genuinely free education of the genuinely free man. But such individuals were free from instrumental ends only because they owned slaves, leaving these leisured scholars uninterrupted freedom for their intellectual enquiries into the first principles of the natural universe and social life within it. This is not the definition of freedom, or of useless education, that is appropriate for a modern liberal arts education.

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