The scourge of ‘relevance’

Friday, May 16th, 2014

Relevance has become a guiding principle in today’s educational culture, Robert Peal laments:

So, in English lessons pupils study the lyrics of pop songs, in RE lessons they compare bible stories with story lines in Eastenders, and in history lessons they are told that Henry VIII was the ‘Gangster’ of Tudor England.

The great Victorian educationalist and schools inspector Matthew Arnold believed that public education should teach the Canon, the best that has been thought and said in the world:

What confronted me in the school library was less the best that has been thought and said, and more an arbitrary collection of lowbrow, transient trash. On prominent display was the 1998 edition of the Virgin book of football records, next to a raft of ghost written footballers’ autobiographies. Kerry Katona’s opus figured largely, as did various book treatments of popular television shows. Secondary school pupils should of course be permitted to read such books, but the complete lack of any alternative resembling real literature in what purports to be a place of learning was startling. Tucked away on the fiction shelves I saw a spine that was notably lacking in lurid colours and splodgy text. It was an old copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, a lonely reminder of the days when schools had intellectual aspirations for their pupils.

The point of compulsory education is to make pupils answer questions they would not otherwise think of asking, one of Peal’s teachers once said:

This is the exact opposite of what a ‘relevant’ curriculum does, as it fails to encourage pupils to look beyond the confines of their own lives. Education should expand a child’s horizons, not pander to them. A school library has the power to transport pupils to ancient civilisations and distant lands. It can place them in the company of great minds and extraordinary individuals. It can involve them in the triumphs and tragedies of literature’s greatest creations. Relevance is the exact opposite of what a good school library should provide.

Is the problem relevance, or the hamfisted application of the idea?


  1. Curiously, Evangelical Christianity began it’s love affair with relevance about 20–25 years ago. That exact word: “relevance”. The affair apparently is going strong still. Mainliners came to the party late, but they’re into it too. Only focused on a more urbane clientele. It’s somewhat natural if you’re in a missionary religion to feel good when people like you. You think you’re doing it all for Jesus, but the overwhelming (and usually fatal) temptation is that you’ll be doing it to feel good.

  2. Alrenous says:

    Buying the correct amount, type, and timing of life insurance would be pretty relevant, don’t you think?

    What else?

    Apparently balancing a budget is hard? Could do that.

    Finding a good lawyer or doctor.

    Marketing. Every school should include a flea market so the kids can sell to other kids.

    I’m seeing a pattern. A very JT Gattoish pattern. Maybe stop trying to pretend trigonometry is relevant to 80 IQs?

  3. Handle says:

    When education reform advocates say “relevant” all they really mean is “familiar” because the content is currently popular in mass media to which the teenaged students are likely to be exposed.

    That is to say, they are trying to overcome the typical lack of motivation and interest and push-back from the kids by leveraging the shortcuts of what they know the students already find entertaining and exciting.

    Every teacher in every class has at least one, and often many, surly kids with their arms crossed who don’t care about what is being taught and don’t want to care, and think they are correct in their assessment that they ought not to care, and that what is going on is a big, boring waste of their time during which they are obligated to remain a captive audience for no better reason than the convenience of adults or “the system”.

    It is pushing on a rope to try and convince such kids to even try to appreciate something in which even the best “argument for importance or necessity” is not immediately obvious to them. Every teacher’s been through that futility.

    So, there is a desperate demand for something the kids already know and like, and to try with simultaneously implausible and herculean efforts to use that content as “bait” and an unlikely subject with which to illustrate and teach the lesson objective. “Get them interested to get them to tune in to get them thinking.”

    I sympathize with teachers who retort that if the kids tune out, you can’t reach them at all, so, yeah, it’s sad what it takes to get them to tune in, but it’s better than nothing, and just maybe it will set one in a hundred of them on a path of curiosity and learning in general.

    But this is a bad argument because it ignores opportunity costs. The question is not whether this particular use of time could possibly have a net positive expected outcome, but whether it is the best use amongst the set of all the other alternative ways we would use this educational time. For the kids that need the subject matter to be hip hop lyrics or else they’ll tune out, there are much better ways to help equip them to succeed — or at least fend for themselves — in adult life.

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