Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Useless Knowledge?

I'm currently enjoying a book written by Ken Jennings (who has won more matches on Jeopardy! than any other human being, several times over) called Brainiac. Besides being something of a memoir of Jennings' experience of auditioning for—and later playing—Jeopardy!, Brainiac is a discussion of the fascination many people have with trivia.

Among other things, "trivia" is often described as "useless knowledge." One aspect of "trivia" that seems to hold true in this vein, that Jennings discusses, is that one can be absolutely brilliant, yet not be able to use that knowledge in a way that earns a decent living. Indeed, it seems that the ability of anyone to do so is a fairly recent phenomenon:
You might think that trivia would have existed since the dawn of time... You certainly wouldn't be surprised to hear that renaissance men like Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin enjoyed general-knowledge question-and-answer games with friends as they sat around their studio or laboratory....

But they didn't. Trivia as we know it today is a purely twentieth-century invention....

Robert L. Ripley [Ripley's Believe It or Not!] was the world's first true trivia celebrity. (pp. 55-59)
Having professed my love of game shows on this blog before, I'm sure it's no surprise to say that I'm a fan of trivia. And I'm sure that anyone who reads my Friday Transformer features (especially if they aren't actually Transformers fans) would probably agree that quite a bit of that trivia is "useless knowledge." Sure, some people can make a living off of their love of Transformers, but it's not the kind of thing that most of us can get a sustainable job at. For most of us, myself included, it's a hobby.

My dad would no doubt be shocked to hear me say this, but I think that a lot of my love of trivia comes from him. Now, Dad is not a fan of game shows (or of Transformers), and considers himself less-than-academically inclined. But he knows more about steam locomotives, especially from the Virginia and Truckee railroad or from the logging railroads of the Northern California mountains, than most of the people that work in those information-providing tour guide positions at museums dedicated to the purpose. I know, because I've been there when Dad's mentioned some bit of information the tour guide didn't know on quite a number of occasions. Dad's also quite the expert on Model A Fords.

Now, although I certainly know a bit about trains and antique cars just from having grown up around them, I didn't quite inherit those particular interests. I like game shows and Transformers, and am interested in matters of Christian faith and theology. And although I've been around enough people in pretty much all those fields to know that there are those who know quite a bit more about each of those areas than I do, I don't think it's unfair to say that I know more on those topics than the average person.

The question then becomes, how to put that knowledge to profitable use? I've heard it said that a great vocation is where one's passion and the world's need meets. Well, who really needs to know about Transformers? Or about game shows? Those of us with faith could certainly make an argument for the world's "need" for sound Christian teaching, but I don't think that even most believers would try to argue that there's much money in it. Likewise, with my dad, I'd be willing to bet that he'd drop everything and move to Northern California to volunteer with the El Dorado Western Railway Foundation (for which he cast that replica #4 number plate so prominently displayed in their sidebar) if he didn't actually need to... well... earn a living.

So, we make do as best we can. Dad's doing fairly well as a piping designer and model maker, and I'm still working at Fuller Theological Seminary, helping others who are looking for ways of using their Christian passion to connect with the world outside. I'm certainly not getting rich off of it, especially these days, but I do find that I'm able to do this job specifically because of some of my sometimes "trivial" knowledge, so at least it's hardly "useless." Perhaps that's enough.


  1. teehee - don't let Dad hear you say you inherited a love of "useless knowledge" from him... ;) (I totally get what you mean, though!)

  2. Is there such a thing as useless knowledge, or is there knowledge which is still searching for a use? Ken Jennings found a use for his and parlayed it to a good living. What do trains, game shows, and transformers say about us? It is finding the avenue to share that knowledge that is the trick. Only in the searching for it will it be found. Knock on the door until it is answered. With the transformers hot (due to the movies), has anyone done a book of the theology of transformers. If not go for it.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I would hope that the fact that I phrased the title of my post as a question (to say nothing of the content of the post itself) would indicate that I'm not actually convinced that knowledge is "useless." I'm merely commenting on the perception.

    Actually, I *have* seen a "Philosophy & Transformers" book done (apparently there's a whole series of Philosophy in ___ series of pop culture stuff), if not a "Theology" one, per se. Big problem in doing such a book, though, is you can't just have knowledge, but actual credibility in the field. Even if no one's heard of you, seeing "PhD" after one's name helps sell books. As a kinda-sorta theologian, the most generous I can say is that I'm still building my own credibility in the field. No publisher would bite at me at my current level.

    That, theoretically, leaves self-publishing. But that also takes time and capital, both of which I'm in pretty short supply, even if I did have something someone wanted to read (the readership numbers on this blog would indicate that that's a stretch, too).

    But, who knows? Just the thought of doing such a work is inspiration, and even if the obstacles are rather significant, I certainly don't claim them to be insurmountable.



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