Why “Useless” Knowledge Still Has Value

I can’t get anywhere without my phone’s GPS (which my wife and I have named “Miriam”). We’re so reliant on it that there have been a number of times my wife and I have been driving even in our own neighborhood and said, “Wait —where are we? And how do we get home?”

It’s one thing for you or for me to get a little lost. But for London cabbies, that would be unacceptable. Taxi drivers in London need to have spent literally years studying every single back road, housing estate, bar, restaurant, park, and major or minor point of interest for over 25,000 streets. The test to become a London cabbie is often thought to be the hardest exam in the world, and it’s simply called “The Knowledge.”

But as a recent New York Times article asked, how important is the Knowledge in a world where everyone’s phone can have Waze to get real-time traffic reports, and can tell you how to get to whatever you want to see?

The Knowledge seems quaint and outdated today, but it still is being used. Why is that? As Jody Rosen, author of the article, suggests:

Ultimately, the case to make for the Knowledge may be…philosophical, spiritual, sentimental: The Knowledge should be maintained because it is good for London’s soul, and for the souls of Londoners. The Knowledge stands for, well, knowledge—for the Enlightenment ideal of encyclopedic learning, for the humanist notion that diligent intellectual endeavor is ennobling, an end in itself. To support the Knowledge is to make the unfashionable argument that expertise cannot be reduced to data, that there’s something dystopian, or at least depressing, about the outsourcing of humanity’s hard-won erudition to gizmos, even to portable handheld gizmos that themselves are miracles of human imagination and ingenuity.

The Knowledge, then, is not simply an avenue to know whether or not to take Fishponds Road. It’s a belief that learning for its own sake has value.

And that philosophy is a very Jewish one—in Judaism, knowledge and learning have inherent worth. Torah lishma, Torah for its own sake, is to be celebrated.

In many ways, Torah and Talmud study parallel the Knowledge. Why do we need to know the intricate details of animal sacrifices that haven’t been done for thousands of years? Why should liberal Jews care about the laws of purity?

If we think of knowledge as purely instrumental, then the answer is “We don’t.” But there is difference between knowledge and learning. Knowledge is the result; learning is the process. And regardless of whether or not we use that knowledge, we all can strive to be learners.

As Rabbi Bradley Artson teaches,

Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and unfolding that is a permanent accompaniment to human life…

One of the laws of thermodynamics is the principle of entropy — that everything returns to chaos eventually. In the world of biology and physics, only the investment of new energy can counter the inevitable spread of disorder.

This is true of the spirit world, as well. Judaism has made a cardinal mitzvah out of Talmud Torah, Jewish learning. Jews studying together, the Mishnah teaches us, experience in the process the presence of God. (The Bedside Torah, 238-9)

There is joy in discovery. Curiosity is its own reward. The challenge of learning pushes us in new directions. Even if we might never use the laws of animal sacrifice, the simple act of studying our sacred texts is a sacred act, powerful in and of itself. As Artson says, “Go ahead. Learn a little.”

After all, even if a London cabbie could potentially turn on their GPS, ask them just how much value, pride and excitement they felt in their arduous process of learning. We might need or use all the knowledge we gain, but the simple process of learning for its own sake can be deeply spiritual.

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