An email from Peter McBurney:
I share your views expressed in the post on education today. But let me add something which the believers in pure instrumentalist views of education usually seem to overlook, potentially to the enormous detriment of us all. They overlook the fact that we do not know in advance where the good, useful ideas will come from! Let me repeat that for the hard of hearing: none of us knows where ideas come from, or which ideas will turn out to be useful.
There are numerous examples in mathematics and engineering of supposedly irrelevant, fanciful notions finding later (sometimes, centuries later) practical applications, from the symbolic representation of zero and the square root of minus one, through to the study of different types of infinity. Modern civil engineering (skyscrapers, bridges, high-speed trains) would not exist without the mathematics of the square root of minus one. Modern-day computers would not work without Boolean algebra, a fanciful idea of no practical relevance developed in the mid 19th-century by pure mathematicians and logicians.
My own research is in the design of artificial languages for intelligent machines to communicate with one another, and for this work, people in our field draw upon speech act theory, a branch of the Philosophy of Language, developed by John Austin, John Searle and others, impractical philosophers all, 50-odd years ago. If speech act theory did not already exist, we computer scientists would first have had to invent it. Yet, the philosophers of language did not have machine communications in mind when they developed speech act theory, and nor should they have.
For profoundly instrumentalist reasons, society should sponsor all research, across all the full range of humanities, arts and social sciences, as well as the sciences and engineering.
Feel free to quote me on this. I feel very strongly about the subject. I resent pronouncements about the supposed well-springs of practical, technological research being made by people ignorant of that research, how it is done, and what ideas it draws upon. By placing any limits on the potential sources of those ideas, such people risk damaging the very thing they claim to be supporting - economic development and technological progress.