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The Utility of Knowledge

By Jason Barton     1/30/18 10:12pm

Dichotomies have always frustrated me. When considering identity, they read as, “You are either this or that.” Many are confronted with the rigidity of dichotomies in their everyday lives, especially when it comes to integral aspects of one’s identity (e.g., gender, race and sexual orientation). There is one dichotomy, though, that has greatly influenced my time at Rice, pertaining to the utility of knowledge. Knowledge, according to this dichotomy, can be either useful or useless. Because of my academic interests (philosophy and psychology), I have often experienced others questioning the usefulness of the knowledge produced by these disciplines. What is the value of an education grounded in philosophical inquiry? Can psychological knowledge be considered scientific? More broadly, what makes knowledge useful?

Don’t worry: I am not attempting to resolve the ongoing dispute between liberal arts majors and STEM majors; instead, I am interested in how Rice students can transform their immediate education into a meaningful accumulation and dissemination of knowledge. In other words, my aim is to overcome the ivory tower criticisms leveraged against post-secondary academic institutions.

Last semester, one of my classmates was assigned a project that involved researching a contentious topic and then summarizing the researched information in the form of a Wikipedia article. This project might seem quite simple, but its significance certainly transcends simplicity. In the traditional classroom setting, students are tasked with learning the course material in such a way that facilitates completion of homework assignments, projects and exams. This project, however, required students not only to master knowledge, but also disseminate knowledge to the general public. In effect, the project disrupted the solitary nature of studying by introducing the needs of others and, most importantly, motivated students to understand the impact their knowledge could have beyond the academy. The project, in short, made the private resources of the academy available to the public, online community.

This example presents a challenge to modern notions of utility. Knowledge might be considered useful, in most cases, when the public becomes privatized. When knowledge becomes patented, creates a commodity and enters the market as an object (i.e., as information), it might be considered useful. Other forms of knowledge, according to the dichotomy, are rendered useless. This, however, is contested by the example mentioned above. It seems that knowledge can be useful when the trend is reversed — that is, when the private becomes publicized, knowledge can be useful by presenting it openly, freely and communally. The knowledge we encounter at Rice, therefore, need not only be useful when it creates something tangible, marketable or profitable; rather, the knowledge we encounter at Rice can be considered useful when it opens intellectual avenues for others, allows others to think about the world differently and positions the educational experience beyond the confines of the university.

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