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When Relevance Fails

Today we are happy to present the third post in Diane and Michael Ravitch’sRavitchjackmiller series on Moreover. They are the authors of THE ENGLISH READER: What Every Literate Person Needs To Know, .

For decades, professors of pedagogy have preached the gospel of Relevance. According to this gospel, students will have greater motivation to learn if their lessons are about their own lives, or if they can read stories about people just like themselves.

In pursuit of the holy grail of Relevance, the textbooks have been dumbed down, as students read math problems that they might encounter in their daily lives, read books about depressed and rebellious teens instead of great literature, and study the history of workers and other nameless people rather than the major events and individuals who have shaped our world.

This philosophy of education has prevailed in our schools for the past two or three generations of students, but it is impossible to discern its benefits. Students do not seem to be more motivated by reading about people just like themselves. The only sure effect is that they know less about important literature and history. Everytime a pollster takes to the street to ask about historical figures, or the meaning of the Bill of Rights, or the geography of the world, or any other substantive knowledge, the responses are always shocking; at a certain point of sameness, they turn from shocking to titillating.

Those who advocate Relevance are never dissuaded, however, by such poor results. First, they claim that anything generally recognized as “knowledge” (such as locating Egypt or Mexico on a world map) is “mere facts” or trivia, and therefore unimportant. Second, they claim that no one has ever known such things in the past. Since ignorance prevailed a generation or four generations ago, it should prevail now as well.

There is an older concept of education in which the educator is a sort of missionary, bringing enlightenment to the illiterate and unschooled. This educator seeks to open the unlettered to the world of ideas and knowledge. This educator knows how to distinguish between what is great, what is good, what is mediocre, and what is dross.

This latter educator is now out of fashion. Let us hope that his and her like are to be found again, before our culture is completely swamped by transient, meaningless Relevance.

Diane Ravitch

Recent Comments

  1. Matt

    I really enjoyed today’s post! I agree with a lot of what is said. In my HS Econ books there were articles about Tiger Woods that stressed relevance, however, the only thing I remember is that Tiger Woods was in my book nothing about economics. I believe that relevance is an important motivator and not 1 way will work, but to incorporate both in learning would be best for all. To learn all facts and to learn whats relevant are both important to the furthering of one’s education. Just my thoughts…

  2. Will

    I think the whole concept of relevance is backward. The whole basis of the liberal education system is that the various subjects we teach – history, geography, literature, the sciences – are relevant to all, and that a well-rounded individual is more valuable than someone who is too focused. By making the material relevant in terms of the student rather than the other way around, we are making them more focused on their own little world.

    So maybe, instead of eliminating The Great Gatsby in favor of some more “relevant” book (ie more modern and with adolescent characters), we should focus on teaching them why the problems that Fitzgerald wrote about are still important.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

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