Roots of the Divide: ‘Useful Knowledge’ versus Literary Culture

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In this essay, I consider several stages in the developing relationship between “useful knowledge” and literary culture. First, I discuss the rise of the useful knowledge movement in early nineteenth-century Britain.  The useful knowledge movement can be traced to the gentlemanly educational and social reformers of the late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century. The utilitarian coterie known as the “philosophical radicals” criticized the established educational institutions in Britain as antiquated and deficient. They developed new educational plans and systems, based largely on the economic and social conditions emerging with nascent industrialism. I argue that useful knowledge—associated with an understanding of the material world as opposed to literature, classical languages, and theology—was an educational carrier of and source for what became modern science by the end of the nineteenth century. 

What, if anything, might this early nineteenth-century discourse regarding useful knowledge offer the contemporary moment as some try to reclaim universities from their obeisance to “social justice” and its propagandistic hijacking of higher education?