Against Relevance

A Short Article for the August 25, 2013 edition of the HRCulean, the weekly newsletter of the VT Honors Residential College.

If you listen the media these days, higher education is in a crisis; I mean full on melt down mode.  College is too expensive; it’s too easy; it’s too hard; and… what students learn isn’t… “relevant.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this.  I’m sure you’ve thought about this.  I am pretty sure, at least at times, you actually believe this.

As you enter the school year, I’d like you to take a few moments to think about this.  What does it mean to have relevance?  What is actually relevant to you and to your life?  When it comes to the media, politicians, and pundits, “relevance” is pretty simple: either your courses help you in your future job, or they don’t.  Job skills are relevant; Shakespeare isn’t.  Your courses either help grease the wheels of commerce (relevant) or they don’t (irrelevant).  I’m sure you have had some of these thoughts yourselves.  “Why do I have to take this course?”  “How is this relevant to my life?”  “Why doesn’t my professor make this relevant?”

I want to make an argument against relevance.  Instead of asking the question, “Why is this relevant to me?” Perhaps you should ask it in the negative: “Why isn’t this relevant to me?”  The world is an infinitely complicated place.  And even if you think that drought in the Sudan has little relevance to your life, you’d be wrong.  The connections are there.  We are part of a whole.  The things that happen to others, the desires and goals of others, the actions that we all take, affect the rest of the world.

So I challenge you.  Next time you think to yourself, “how is this relevant?,” I want you to pause and actually consider the question.  Instead of having to justify curiosity and attention, make the effort to discover how the matter at hand is relevant. What are the connections that bind that topic to you? Why does it matter?  And the next time that someone tries to reduce your education to a set of job skills, please explain to them why there are many things entirely unrelated to your future profession that are worthy of examining, that the world is a laudable object of your search for relevance.

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One Response to Against Relevance

  1. shellifowler says:

    Love this flipping of the question! Perhaps asking ‘Hmmm…why is this notrelevant?’ should be adopted by faculty, too. We can be a surprisingly incurious bunch about how to discover and engage with the interests and ideas and passions of our students. Thanks for this indirect but very ‘relevant’ reminder!

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