Is it not a curious fact that in a world steeped in irrational hatreds, which threaten civilization itself, men and women-old and young-detach themselves wholly or partly from the angry current of daily life to devote themselves to the cultivation of beauty, to the extension of knowledge, to the cure of disease, to the amelioration of suffering, just as though fanatics were not simultaneously engaged in spreading pain, ugliness and suffering? The world has always been a sorry and confused sort of place-yet poets and artists and scientists have ignored the factors that would, if attended to, paralyze them. From a practical point of view, intellectual and spiritual life is, on the surface, a useless form of activity in which men indulge because they procure for themselves greater satisfactions than are otherwise obtainable. In this paper, I shall concern myself with the question of the extent to which the pursuit of these useless satisfactions proves unexpectedly the source from which undreamed-of utility is derived.
(I note in passing that the only monthly magazine whose continuous publication exceeds that of Harper's is Scientific American. Perhaps the greatest gift I ever received as a child was a discarded set of twenty years of Scientific American back issues. I read and reread them all – cover to cover – with religious fervor and spent many an hour attempting to replicate the experiments reported in the Amateur Scientist columns. It was a life changing experience, for I could not, then nor now, imagine a greater sobriquet than scientific American. It was first magazine to which I ever subscribed, and after forty years, I remain an avid and loyal Scientific American reader.)
Flexner was perhaps best known for the 1910 Carnegie Foundation-funded and eponymously named "Flexner Report," which rooted American medical education in germ theory and the scientific method. (One can read the original, book length report here.) He was also the founding director of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). It was in this role that he penned the Harper's article. The IAS hosts a copy of the original article here, and Princeton's press has recently republished the article, along with a commentary by the IAS's current director.
Almost eighty years later, the opening paragraph of Flexner's article seems both timely and prescient. We remain "steeped in a world of irrational hatreds" and as anti-intellectualism rises and support for higher education and basic research and scholarship declines, we are again questioning the "extent to which the pursuit of these useless satisfactions proves unexpectedly the source from which undreamed-of utility is derived."
From Curiosity to Utility
Our science and culture rest on the foundational discoveries and insights from 5000 years of recorded history. That same history tells a woeful tale of those societies that abandoned exploration. Yet still we question the importance of untrammeled curiosity as the sustaining rivulets that feed the life-giving stream that is innovation and discovery.
Prospective stories of discovery utility are often fiction, but retrospective ones are rooted in undeniable facts. Your cellphone's operation depends on both quantum theory insights and the explorations of the self-consistency of mathematics from nearly a hundred years ago. At the time, neither had any conceivable practical application. Your cancer immunotherapy rests on basic biological discoveries whose antecedents stretch back nearly as long. Today's curiosity and irrelevancy is tomorrow's enabler. Is there waste and failure? Yes, of course, but no seer can predict which ideas are transformative.
In his Harper's article, Flexner notes that discovery is precisely what happens when gifted minds are free to explore the unexpected and the unknown. Tellingly, he makes equally passionate arguments for both the sciences and the arts and humanities. In what is undoubtedly the article's most poignant paragraph, Flexner writes emphatically:
An institution which sets free successive generations of human souls is amply justified whether or not this graduate or that makes a so-called useful contribution to human knowledge. A poem, a symphony, a painting, a mathematical truth, a new scientific fact, all bear in themselves all the justification that universities, colleges, and institutes of research need or require.
Today, debate rages about the value proposition of college degrees, the need for liberal arts education, and the importance of skills training. Others are questioning the return on investment from research and scholarship and the balance of investment in basic and applied work. Across this milieu, immigration policy and the international flow of students and scholars are hotly contested.
There are indeed practical socioeconomic considerations and competing investment priorities – civil infrastructure, social services, and national security; such is the nature of realpolitick. Yet there is something deeper, something intrinsic, something definitional – the ethos of a free and society that values knowledge and creativity for their own sake.
Each day, I am privileged to see the wonder of discovery; I witness the transfiguration of minds; I hear the music of the sublime; I see emotions caught on canvas. At universities, we free human souls; we give minds wings to fly. This is, as Flexner said, all the justification anyone needs. I will defend it to my last breath.