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?