“Knowledge is power,” so they say. And it’s true. Knowledge translates directly into earning potential and influence. A person who doesn’t know much of anything can barely get a job at the minimum wage. A person who has more of the right knowledge can earn more. And a person with a lot of the right knowledge earns even more. They can become authorities.

But most knowledge is absolutely worthless. For example, knowing how to fix a machine that no longer exists is pretty useless. Knowing almost anything that doesn’t pertain to your profession has little personal economic value. Knowing things that have nothing to do with your personal interests has little value as well. Like knowing:

  • The word for “bubblegum” in a language you’ll never have to speak
  • A 100 makes and models of helicopters
  • How to fly the 100 types of helicopters
  • How to repair the engines of 100 types of helicopters
  • What everyone on Earth had for breakfast yesterday

All of this knowledge is perfectly useless to almost everybody. Most people are, statistically, 99.99999999999999999999% ignorant of all the knowledge that there is. Even if you just limited to knowledge that was captured in books in your language, you – everyone – would still be just about 100% ignorant.

So is knowledge power? Or is the vast majority of it useless?

Knowledge is power, but it is only the small iota of knowledge that is valuable to the specific individual. All the rest is useless. For example, knowing how to fix helicopters is a very lucrative bit of knowledge for somebody, but not for almost everybody.

How would someone determine whether knowledge was power or garbage considering the powerful stuff was such a small fraction of the overall amount of information?

I propose a simple test to determine which specific knowledge is valuable to an individual:

  • Is it useful? Like, does it help someone complete their job or live their day-to-day lives? For example, I need to know about business and how to write for my business writing career. I also have to know how to drive a car and cook meals so I can take care of my family.
  • Is it enjoyable? Does the individual enjoy acquiring and having it. For example, I enjoy reading about ethics and playing the guitar. I also enjoy reading about NFL football and what restaurants are good near my home.

That’s it. Everything that is not useful or enjoyable is wholesale useless. Unless it is knowledge that somebody else has that you find valuable. For example, a dishwasher repairman’s knowledge of fixing a dishwasher may be valuable to me when my dishwasher is broken, but I needn’t know it myself.

Useful knowledge and school

The 15,000 hours of compulsory schools inflicted upon children, and the university degrees that follow, are often justified on how important and how valuable knowledge is. But any serious look at the curriculum, how massive it is, and how standardized it is suggests that most of it, if not almost all of it, is not valuable.

People joke about how they haven’t used a quadratic equation – ever – since having to take a test on it. In fact, they forgot it anyways. Few people care about the works of Shakespeare. Memorizing state capitals is terribly useless, especially since you can Google this information if it were ever truly needed.

We also experience that most of the knowledge that we do find useful or enjoy does not come from school. Most job skills don’t come from school, they are learned through working. Things that might be universal and useful, like driving a car, operating a stove, using credit or filing a tax return are completely absent from formal education. Most things we enjoy, like guitar playing and football highlights, also do not come from school.

I think it’s hard, if not impossible, to suggest that there is any one raft of knowledge that is valuable to anybody that requires the scope of 12 to 16 (or more) years of instructor-led schooling.

If you twist my arm, I would concede to one curriculum that most would argue is universally useful:

  • Knowing how to read and write. These are the keys to finding and expressing all the other knowledge that might be useful or enjoyable. (As of this writing in 2015. A lot of knowledge can be had through watching video or listening to a podcast. Maybe I’m being too old fashioned here.)
  • Knowing enough arithmetic to safely buy carpeting for a room in your house (e.g., knowing how to calculate square footage, some multiplication to figure out how much you need and what it will cost, and enough addition/subtraction to get by the cash register unscathed.)

These two items above would probably require at most 400 hours of instruction (10 weeks of total school.) But kids learn how to speak without schooling, so why even bother packing a lunch for these 10 weeks?

That’s the best, most inclusive curriculum I can imagine for a universal raft of useful knowledge. Nobody needs one for knowledge that is enjoyable.

With this being the situation, there is no case for the curriculum requirements enforced at compulsory public schools. And probably no case for school being necessary based on the argument that the knowledge it imparts is actually powerful, valuable or useful.