The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

“The Institute is, from the standpoint of organization, the simplest and least formal thing imaginable. It consists of three schools-a School of Mathematics, a School of Humanistic Studies, a School of Economics and Politics. Each school is made up of a permanent group of professors and an annually changing group of members. Each school manages its own affairs as it pleases; within each group each individual disposes of his time and energy as he pleases. The members who already have come from twenty-two foreign countries and thirty-nine institutions of higher learning in the United States are admitted, if deemed worthy, by the several groups. They enjoy precisely the same freedom as the professors. They may work with this or that professor, as they severally arrange; they may work alone, consulting from time to time anyone likely to be helpful. No routine is followed; no lines are drawn between professors, members, or visitors. Princeton students and professors and Institute members and professors mingle so freely as to be indistinguishable. Learning as such is cultivated. The results to the individual and to society are left to take care of themselves. No faculty meetings are held; no committees exist. Thus men with ideas enjoy conditions favorable to reflection and to conference. A mathematician may cultivate mathematics without distraction; so may a humanist in his field, an economist or a student of politics in his. Administration has been minimized in extent and importance. Men without ideas, with- out power of concentration on ideas, would not be at home in the Institute. I can perhaps make this point clearer by citing briefly a few illustrations. A stipend was awarded to enable a Harvard professor to come to Princeton: he wrote asking, “What are my duties?” I replied: “You have .no duties-only opportunities. ”

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We make ourselves no promises, but we cherish the hope that the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past. Not for a moment, however, do we defend the Institute on that ground. It exists as a paradise for scholars who, like poets and musicians, have won the right to do as they please and who accomplish most when enabled to do so.”

Abraham Flexner

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