You don’t have to be a classical music aficionado, or a fan of the arts in general, to appreciate the impact of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s appointment of Jonathon Heyward as its new conductor. This young man of international stature will surely have a profound and delightful influence on our community. I’m thrilled to have him with us in Baltimore, and I want to welcome him to our town.
One particular aspect of Jonathon’s story, as he recently recounted for The Baltimore Banner, struck a chord for me. It reminds me of the lessons from one of my favorite essays — one that has served as a constant source of inspiration. It’s called “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.”
Written decades ago by Professor Abraham Flexner — perhaps best known for his 1910 report that modernized medical education in this country — his “Useless Knowledge” piece is a tribute to the value of studying the humanities. Flexner cites the pure research of a handful of young scholars into electromagnetic waves — the thing that, back in his day, made wireless communications possible.
These researchers, Flexner writes “had done their work without thought of use and that throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”
Our desire to know about something, driven simply for the sake of knowing, he says, “is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking.”
And here’s the connection to Maestro Heyward (it’s simple, as well): He recalls that while others hoped he would pursue a career in a traditional profession, he picked up a cello in middle school and became inspired by that instrument. I’m sure that, at the time, his family and friends thought that the cello was a useless item from the standpoint of career development. But for Heyward, it enriched his educational experience and sparked a passion to pursue a path of study that was unfamiliar to him.
Now, not many years later, he stands at the center of one of the country’s great orchestras. And we cheer him on.
Quite often, I hear families and friends of students discourage them from pursuing a major in the humanities. I understand their concern. For far too long, and from seemingly well-meaning folks, they have heard the message that there is no financial value in the study of certain subjects — history, philosophy, English literature, etc.
Those messages could not be further from the truth. The world needs — indeed, requires — people who are thoughtful, creative, well read, communicative and curious. Most of all, curious. Underneath the bluster about careers that “pay off,” I think we know that the humanities have a deep and lasting value.
Heyward, and Flexner before him, are flesh and blood signifiers that life is enhanced by the humanities. So, while some may see history as about as useful as a cello picked up by a middle schooler, I assure you that the question is not, “What will they do with it?” It’s really: “How far can they go?”
Kurt L. Schmoke serves as president of The University of Baltimore and is the former mayor of Baltimore. He can be reached at email@example.com.