The Value of Useless Studies


IT is rather surprising that Prof. Ayrton should indulge in covert sneers at Universities for devoting themselves to useless studies. It certainly ill becomes one whose life is bound up with electrical science, which is of such recent growth that nobody can pretend to forget how it owes its origin to those who studied it while useless. If Universities do not study useless subjects, who will? Once a subject becomes useful, it may very well be left to schools and technical colleges, to patent-mongers, and the trade. Mr. Bury is, on the other hand, mistaken in two respects. That a subject is useless is hardly worth considering as a recommendation for its being made compulsory on students. There are too many useless subjects for that. The great objection to compulsory Greek is that it is the principal stumbling-stone in the way of any literature being studied by ordinary University students. The Bible produced very little effect until it was read in translations; and the danger of a pagan revival, if ancient literature were studied without the obstruction of difficult languages, is the best reason for insisting on these languages in a Christian University. The second mistake of Mr. Bury is that it is any part of the business of a Universtiy to teach. Universities should certainly give facilities for students to learn. It is the business of the students to learn. If they are so ill prepared that they have not acquired the art of learning, they should go to a college or school or private teachers, and get taught; for teaching is the business of these institutions and persons. The business of Universities is to advance culture and knowledge, and to afford students an opportunity of learning how to do this. Prof. Ayrton, by omission rather than by commission, seems utterly unable to appreciate the value of literature for its own sake. How can all this fierce toil he extols so justly advance a lot of savages?

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FITZGERALD, G. The Value of Useless Studies. Nature 45, 392 (1892).

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