Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

More Reflections on Uselessness

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

So I started this morning responding to Luca Morini’s article on Uselessness (annotated link) and now I want to dig deeper by thinking through a few examples and seeing which of my 4 approaches to uselessness (absolute, temporal, contextual or intrinsic value) they fall under. As I said earlier, I don’t know if I can get behind absolute uselessness and I think it’s unfair to completely eschew Usefulness of the kind that comes from marketability because, economically, people need jobs to survive before they need to nurture their souls and such…but I do believe the purpose of higher education should go waaaay beyond what markets need (which is not to say skip over those market needs altogether). While productivity and efficiency should not be our highest goals, they aren’t intrinsically bad, either. As Remi Holden says in an annotation on the article, “there are… many moments throughout my given day when I must embrace productivity and efficiency – often so that I can later be playful”. Luca agrees in response, saying “renouncing [productivity/efficiency] could bring on catastrophic consequences which would probably hit first and foremost already disadvantaged segments of society”. But also that the discourse often is used against them also. It is a complex issue.

Back to some examples. I am  not a fan of doing schoolwork at home. But I like doing usefully useless fun things with my girl. I recently used these magnet toys (Bornimago) in a workshop where people who didn’t know each other did a sort of team-building activity as they tried to create a stable and tall structure. I had 3 packs of slightly different functionality and took one home to my child and two to work (for use in my own classes and workshops). As my daughter and I play with these we get lost in them and can play for hours. I also sometimes take them out at work and just start playing while talking to colleagues and some of us get into it. You could argue that with an almost-5-year-old this is a playing to learn thing. She learns about magnetism (she discovered the magnets stick to other metals at home and she gets frustrated when poles refuse to connect so she kind of understands north/south in magnets and how to get around it to get what she wants). She learns about construction and counting and she gets pretty creative with what she does with them. But really, none of that is why we play with it. It’s just FUN. We both enjoy it and I don’t honestly remember enough about magnetism or know enough about construction to actually teach her anything directly. She’s just discovering what her curiosity leads her to. I want to think this lies in the useless category but it doesn’t really. It’s temporally useless but in future when she learns about magnetism and construction this will have given her some background (just like driving games help kids prepare a little for actually driving). It’s also contextually useful in that it helps both me and her get our eyes off a screen and play together in harmony. It’s also intrinsically useful because it’s fun in and of itself. 

I considered a million different things  can do with my students with these and one of them is to ask them to develop a game from the magnets. Another is to ask them to create as many shapes as possible from a limited number of magnets. Another is to brainstorm learning value of playing with the magnets. And more. I am hoping they will come up with even more. But it’s such an open-ended thing with so few restrictions to it that I think there is plenty of room for imagination and that in itself is intrinsically useful imho. So emm not useless. Also very relaxing to do btw as it keeps your hands busy and your mind sort of drifts off…
Back to the article. Luca says “We can’t claim legitimation using the same criteria of our opponents” (which aligns with my contextual uselessness category) . This statement applies to a lot of areas where there is an ideological shift or paradigmatic difference. But he confuses me later because he then suggests that the only way is to take the opponents’ argument to the end and go through it. The story that follows of dinosaurs and feathers and evolution points to a temporal Uselessness that he clarifies when he says:

What is now useless can open up whole new worlds tomorrow. And even if it never does, it is beautiful, in that it has the markings of the play of possibility that is life and mind.

I love Kris Shaffer’s response to that: “Education should open up the possible, not constrain to the already known”. And that is the crux of it. We never know what may come and scientific research is sometimes guided by curiosity rather than a particular goal. Is it ok to take away funds that could be used to research a cure for cancer and put it into research about planet Mars, when we don’t know if any good will come of it? It’s a major ethical question and makes my head spin because what if we discover the cure for cancer on Mars, you know? But this is an argument for Usefulness. Just a temporal one. One that doesn’t know for sure that something will be useful in future but does it in the hope or imagination that eventually something useful will come of it. In my response I call it “futuristic utility”.

Later on, Luca mentions the buzz around games/gamification in edu – the need ofr them to be serious or not at all:  and Remi responds about his concern about “explosion of game-based learning to the detriment of play”. I share the same concern. I make a point of NOT teaching students the details of game mechanics and dynamics but rather focusing on learning and fun. I would rather stop talking about educational games and instead focus on playful learning. I loathe gamification because it often takes a behaviorist approach to people. Yes making things fun is cool. Now can we do it in mindful loving ways and not manipulative ones? I am wondering if this is what Remi and Luca are calling “gameful” practices. I always like to bring in ethical issues into my classes. I have used gender and Feminist Frequency videos. I plan to discuss ethics of Pokemon Go. I wonder if gameful practices are worth discussing also.

I was recently asked by some folks doing an adaptive learning platfrom (they have a good idea,that’s different from what you expect from adaptive learning things and they seem ethical at heart…but…adaptive; and I told em I  no fan) to give feedback and most of my feedback was “let the teacher decide how to give feedback to each student”. Because having a standard response to each type of mistake a learner makes, believe me, is NOT personalized learning. At all.

I plan to check out the list of special people Luca mentions as those who create games from limited resources (discovered I had come across one of em before).
I  reminded of a game I discovered recently called Liyla that’s about a man in Palestine trying to reach his family and it’s got little mechanical tricks and apparently little puzzles later (i only played it a few times and haven’t gotten far yet)..apparently Apple didn’t want to list it as a game (shame on you, Apple). But you know what you really learn in this game? It’s heartbreaking and emotional because every few steps this guy walks, a bomb hits and he runs to avoid it but sometimes he can’t. It says the game is based on true events…and if so, I literally killed the guy 10 times as I tried to discover how to jump and duck properly. I learned something. My heart learned something even though my mind already knew it.

And two more thoughts on useless things. Ok three.

On food – sometimes the most beautiful addition to a meal or food is the least useful nutritionally or otherwise. Like a spice or an even harmless thing like sugar! Or salt! Or worse!

On TV for kids. Apparently useless but actually useful for learning language and so much more. It’s just about how to use what kids learn from TV  by discussing it with them – as you would discuss it if they watched people around them in real life doing something u agree or disagree with or is worth probing. 

And finally. As an academic. It may seem useless for me to write poetry. To publish it. My “I’m not angry at you” poem is something I am more proud of than anything i published this year and it took less than 15 minutes to write. I have no idea where it will “count” on my annual faculty report. But people’s response to it has been priceless. So it’s useless in context. But extremely valuable in others.

So maybe my distinction is between what’s useful and what is VALUABLE. Because value need not be connected to utility. How’s that?

2 Comments

  1. Hi Maha,

    I love your insights and wanted to add about chindogu, the japanese art of creating useless artifacts, just for the sake of creation, curiosity and invention.

    Great read!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Thanks Carolina! I didn’t know about that…though in hindsight much of beauty and art is mostly useless, isn’t it?

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