If education isn't 'useless' now, it's useless in the future

OCTOBER 22 ― Is education the most powerful weapon we have to change the world? Sure, but not if it’s too “useful.” You see how rich people spend money on useless and pointless things? This is how students should learn ie. by focusing precisely on what’s NOT useful.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain.

Luxuries are fun, necessities far less so (duh)

The act of buying is never more enjoyable than when we buy frivolous things. Likewise, purchasing stuff can be boring if what you’re buying has very high utility value.

The more “essential” the product, the less enjoyment. Seriously.

Buying petrol for our cars or gas for our stoves is never fun. Maybe this is why many gas stations have started including piped-in music. Perhaps they hope Bruno Mars can brighten up the process of inserting (and shaking) a metal pump into a hole at the side of my car.

Could this partially explain the rise of hyper-markets? Could it be that Tesco knows better than most people how boring it is to buy oranges, rice and shampoo, hence their efforts to not only drop prices way low but also to “enrich the experience” of choosing groceries? The more “necessary” our purchases, the less fun (hence, the need to deliberately inject more excitement into the process).

Conversely, isn’t this why boutiques and high-tech gadget outlets need never worry about being Godzilla-sized? The experience of buying yet another dress or watch is inherently satisfying.

The marketing trick here is simply to augment an already “cool” experience and maybe nudge the client (who has either too much money or too little self-control) towards the “signature” collections.

Again, the less you need the item, the more you enjoy buying it. One more condominium, one more car, another app, a phone upgrade, a movie, a 5-star room ― all these are enjoyable precisely because of their banality and high price.

In fact, some of us feel the need to “justify” such purchases by talking about, say, how a Rolex is much “more reliable” than a Casio, or how a BMW gives “a more comfortable ride” than a Proton Wira.

And when all justifications fail, just say you bought it “as an investment.”

What does all this have to do with education? Paradoxically, and inversely, almost everything.

Teach the younger generation 'useless’ (or ‘luxury’) subjects

At present, our kids are forced to study all the so-called “useful” subjects. Languages, maths, science ─ all these “high utility” subjects are meant to be super-critical for our young minds. They need to master all these lest they fail to be “of use” to society and, gasp, have to be cast out on the street.

Isn’t it amusing? In school, the philosophy of usefulness reigns. But just look at the way we spend our money the minute we have a bit of extra: On absolutely useless things. It’s almost like a guy graduating from a theological seminary only to work as a pimp.

So why don’t we be consistent for a change? Why not get our students to learn all the “useless” things like philosophy, art, dance, drama, etc? What do you think will happen when more kids are exposed to these domains? Do you think our kids would enjoy their learning more?

As with the economy, of course, we don’t have to abandon “practical” concerns. Certainly subjects like physics, add maths and BM will still have to be taught. But ─ just as thinking about a Sydney holiday is more exciting than thinking about getting a new mop, and watching the Premier League Football is more rousing than buying rice ─ maybe our education system should embrace more of the “useless” in life.

Basically, utility (when it comes to learning) is overrated as hell.

I suspect the lack of “useless” subjects like philosophy or sociology is one reason why most grown-ups end up buying shit which not only a) wastes money but also b) destroys the environment. Consider, though, if climate change was given a higher priority in secondary education than, say, modern maths.

Right now, school-taught thinking is largely instrumental (read: “useful”) thinking which, in my book, lacks somewhat critical anti-ideological proficiency.

We’re churning out the next generation of shallow consumers who will spend most of their money buying shit they don’t need to impress jokers they don’t like, by posting vain-glorious photos on Facebook nobody ever remembers, in order to gain a “social status” they can’t hold on to, in a world they’ll continue to destroy by the cycle of non-stop consumption they are promoting.

And why would the next generation continue to consume up the planet? Because nothing in their syllabus tells them the value of doing otherwise. Our current subjects are way too utility-focused to do anything as scandalous as inspiring students to question the system.

Long and short, if we want our students to grow up doing useful things for their community, we should ensure they learn the “useless” things now.


* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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