Education should not be relevant

It is one of the most deeply rooted superstitions of our age that the purpose of education is to benefit those who receive it. What we teach in school, what subjects we encourage in universities and the methods of instruction are all subject to the one overarching test: what do the kids get out of it? And this test soon gives way to another, yet more pernicious in its effect, but no less persuasive in the thinking of educationists: is it relevant? And by “relevant” is invariably meant “relevant to the interests of the kids themselves”.

From these superstitions have arisen all the recipes for failure that have dominated our educational systems: the proliferation of ephemeral subjects, the avoidance of difficulties, methods of teaching that strive to maintain interest at all costs – even at the cost of knowledge. Whether we put the blame on Rousseau, whose preposterous book Emile began the habit of sentimentalising the process whereby knowledge is transferred from one brain to another, on John Dewey, whose hostility to “rote learning” and old-fashioned discipline led to the fashion for “child-centred learning”, or simply on the egalitarian ideas which were bound to sweep through our schools when teachers were no longer properly remunerated – in whatever way we apportion blame, it is clear that we have entered a period of rapid educational decline, in which some people learn masses, but the masses learn little or nothing at all.

True teachers do not provide knowledge as a benefit to their pupils; they treat their pupils as a benefit to knowledge. Of course they love their pupils, but they love knowledge more. And their overriding concern is to pass on that knowledge by lodging it in brains that will last longer than their own. Their methods are not “child-centred” but “knowledge-centred”, and the focus of their interest is the subject, rather than the things that might make that subject for the time being “relevant” to matters of no intellectual concern. Any attempt to make education relevant risks reducing it to those parts that are of relevance to the uneducated – which are invariably the parts with the shortest life span. A relevant curriculum is one from which the difficult core of knowledge has been excised, and while it may be relevant now, it will be futile in a few years’ time. Conversely, irrelevant-seeming knowledge, when properly acquired, is not merely a discipline that can be adapted and applied; it is likely to be exactly what is needed in circumstances that nobody foresaw.

—Roger Scruton, “Culture Counts” (H/T Douglas Knight)


Shane said…

Roger Scruton is the man.
::aaron g:: said…
This quote is a gross misinterpretation of Dewey. Along with his other pedagogical writings, Experience and Education makes it abundantly clear that Dewey was not for so-called, “child-centered” education.
caesarisnot said…
David, I've got to say that I'm usually in (at least initial) agreement with the content of your blog, but on this particular post, I must refrain.
It easy for theorists to speculate on the notion of "relevance" in education, and given the title of your post, it certainly seems as if Mr. Scruton is content to thrive on the initial shock value of the statement that "education should not be relevant".
However, it seems that Mr. Scruton fails to actually understand the argument of those who fight for "relevance" in education. Mr. Scruton seems to incorrectly define relevance as the totality of what the uneducated already know. However, a more appropriate (and thus empowering) definition of relevance would have to include not only a subject matter as currently understood by the uneducated, but also the next set of logical questions that any level of knowledge invariably brings up. By making education relevant, not only do learners learn subject matter (which exists as the ceiling of learning for Mr. Scruton), but they learn how to learn, thus actually enabling them to truly live.
In the strictest sense, Mr. Scruton is also falsely assuming that "child-centered" learning is an idea that mutually exclusive from "rote learning" and "old-fashioned discipline". This idea, while rhetorically tantalizing, is utterly untrue and damaging to those who day in and day out love their students by serving them as teachers, mentors, and educators. Yes, we love our pupils, but no, we do not love knowledge more.
Anonymous said…
The relevance mantra is worthy of sarcasm, but Dewey is not. He was a brilliant educator and still one of the sharpest at connecting the way democracies need education in the virtues of citizenship. He also warned of the threat to democracies (such as an imperial presidency) when education is neglected.

Opposition to rote-learning is a GOOD thing!
Anonymous said…
Bravo indeed!!
Spaceman Spiff said…
I agree with most of what you say to an extent, but I'd phrase it differently.

One point I disagree on is where you say a true teacher loves the subject more than the students. That can't be true. The point is the teacher has to see that loving them as a teacher means teaching right, making them eat their mental vegetables, as it were. But since "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" I still feel certain that a Christian view of education would place a higher value on the child than the subject.

The rub is that loving children doesn't mean pandering to them or putting on a show for them. As God does, we must discipline those we love so they can grow up right.

You should definitely read Charlotte Mason. Good good stuff. She starts with the principle that children are people. The implications are that you don't manipulate are condescend. She's got some pretty high expectations and serious mental discipline going on from that very perspective of loving the children properly.
Shane said…
The quotes criticizing Scruton here I think fail to notice that this is an excerpt of a longer work. I think it would be a bit premature for us to judge what exactly Scruton's view on the nature of education should be, except that we know he presumably thinks rote memorization has at least something to do with it.

It may be that Scruton is attacking straw men or that he's off target on Dewey, but I think this passage was very suggestive and makes me want to read the longer piece to find out more.
I have no knowledge of Dewey myself, and since I didn't write it, I will let Roger Scruton take the blame for any misrepresentation of past educational theorists.

But I certainly don't have much respect for the "relevancy" argument. I do think teachers should care about their pupils, but teaching should bring the students to the knowledge, not the knowledge to the students. In other words, education is about shaping students so that they mature and conform to the subject matter under consideration; it is not about conforming the subject matter to the students.

I posted this because I think the problem is even more acute in the church, where so many people think we need to make the gospel relevant to society, when it is the other way around. Scripture and not modern science (or whatever modern narrative you wish to use, e.g., capitalism or imperialism) tells us what is really true about the world. We need to become relevant to this story; we should not try to make the gospel relevant to our stories.
Nathan Pralle said…
I do agree with Scruton's assessment that there is a sense of 'entitlement' present in today's educational system whereby both students and parents demand the delivery of knowledge suited to their particular needs rather than accepting the knowledge that is being transferred by the more educated to the less. This used to exist only at the university level but is slowly creeping into younger and younger grade levels and affecting all facets of the system.

That being said, I do say that education must be relevant inasmuch as relevancy is defined to mean tuning the education to suit a modern mindset and societal framework. It is the equivalent of teaching math and talking about Suzie and Johnny going to the drive-in, or Katelyn and Jace renting a DVD. The math ends up being the same, but the relevancy is changed to suit the current environment.

In terms of the church and its teachings, I don't fully agree with the mindset that the people must be made relevant to the stories. That is similar to saying that in order to understand math, we must open up drive-ins so we are relevant to Suzie and Johnny.

That being said, the math need not be changed, either. The content of the message must stay consistent, but the delivery may change and the packaging may differ without altering the meaning. This is, I believe, the challenge of the modern church, to bring something written in a far different time, culture, environment, society, and political landscape into the modern world such that it meshes and penetrates into current mindsets.

This is not easy. It will never be easy. But it is the challenge that presents itself, and the church must fight many battles to keep this at the forefront of their missions. It is far too easy to get comfortable and assume that your audience knows where you're coming from and how this applies to them when they're not within your hallowed halls. I think it's rare to see a church body that regularly recognizes this and uses this to its advantage.

You're right that the gospel message can be — and often should be — presented in a way that is culturally sensitive. But we need to be very careful about how we understand this "enculturation" of the gospel. All too often, essential elements of the gospel get lost in the process of being made "relevant" to a particular culture. Is the notion of Hebraic sacrifice relevant? No, not at all. But we cannot lose it, or else we lose the entire meaning of the cross and the eucharist.

When I say that people must become relevant to the gospel (rather than the other way around), I mean that the gospel calls us to a new way of life in the Spirit. God does not change the call of discipleship in order to meet our own desired lifestyle. On the contrary, God calls us to put everything aside and follow Jesus. This is not relevant to us and never will be, because it is something that only the Spirit can bring about in light of what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection.
Nathan Pralle said…
D.W. -- I appreciate what you are saying about the enculturation of the Word needing to be taken carefully to avoid losing the true meaning behind the original context, and I have seen that many times in trying to re-tell a biblical story in modern terms. The solution to this, I feel, is simply to provide the necessary cultural and societal information to the student prior to the telling of the passage. For instance, most people cannot relate to the symbology of the sheep and their shepherd, as that's a lost art (mostly) in today's world. However, explaining the context in which those analogies were made first brings relevancy to the story (by taking people back into that context) and therefore, meaning. This is not done nearly enough, IMHO.

I believe what you are trying to say when you state, "This is not relevant to us and never will be..." (and feel free to correct my assumption if it is wrong) is that a true life in Christ is not compatible with the typical life of the world, due to the requirements that Christ places upon his followers. Obviously, everyone has their own interpretations of what it means to, "have a new life in Christ", but I wonder at the thought that such a life is incompatible and irrelevant to a typical, normal life as a human being on Earth in a modern world.

Clearly, in the past, it was thought by the monks and nuns of the Church that theirs was the life closest to Christ, divulging themselves of all manners of things material and focusing upon the Word. And yet, for all their holiness and priority, they did precious little good to the world as a whole, preferring to sequester themselves away from the rest of society instead of living among them and radiating Christ to the masses through example.

As I progress in my own faith journey, I have come more and more to the realization and belief that God's intention was not to separate the Jews from the Gentiles but to simply show how Christ can be within someone and yet they can be compatible with the rest of the world as well. It is those that show that belief in Christ and His principles works WITH you, for your good, not against you, who will bring more to the fold than any number of white collars in hallowed halls.

This is not to say that believers must compromise their integrity to fit in; rather, that faith can be expressed in non-elitist terms easily, and one can act in a spiritual manner during any normal, everyday action, not simply religious ceremony. Choosing to separate oneself from the world is, I believe, to ignore the basic premises set out by Christ who himself integrated with some of the worst of society in his day, even enjoyed himself in daily activites, yet maintained his holiness despite this. I worry that the modern Church has forgotten this in favor of a Country Club sort of groupism. I know I have experienced as much in the past.