The idiocy of 'relevance'

Posted: Feb 28, 2003 12:00 AM

One of the many fashionable idiocies that cause American schools to produce results inferior to those in other countries is the notion that education must be "relevant" to the students -- and especially to minority students with a different subculture.

It is absurd to imagine that students can determine in advance what will turn out to be relevant to their progress as adults. Relevance is not something you can predict. It is something you discover after the fact -- after you have left school and are out in the real world.

When I was in high school, I was puzzled when a girl I knew told me that she was studying economics, because I had no idea what that was. It never occurred to me to take economics, so it was certainly not something that seemed relevant to me at the time.

Had someone told me then that I would someday spend more than 20 years as an economist at a think tank, I wouldn't have known what they were talking about, because I had no idea what a think tank was either.

When students are going through medical school, they may not see the relevance of all the things they are taught there. But someday they may have a patient at death's door, whose life may depend on how well the doctor remembers something he was taught in medical school -- and whose relevance may not have been all that clear to him at the time.

People who have already been out in the real world, practicing for years whatever their particular specialty might be, have some basis for determining which things are relevant enough to go into a curriculum to teach those who follow. The idea that students can determine relevance in advance is one of the many counterproductive notions to come out of the 1960s.

The fetish of "relevance" has been particularly destructive in the education of minority students at all levels. If the students do not see immediately how what they are studying applies to their lives in the ghetto, then it is supposed to be irrelevant.

How are these students ever going to get out of the poverty of the ghetto unless they learn to function in ways that are more economically productive? Even if they spend all their lives in the ghetto, if they are to spend them in such roles as doctors or engineers, then they are going to have to study things that are not peculiar ("relevant") to the ghetto.

Worst of all, those teachers who teach minority students things like math and science, whose relevance the students do not see, may encounter resistance and resentment, while those teachers who pander to minority students by turning their courses into rap sessions and ethnic navel-gazing exercises capture their interest and allegiance.

Some educators embrace relevance out of expediency, rather than conviction or confusion. It is the path of least resistance, though that path seldom leads upward. By the time minority students get out into the real world and discover the uselessness of what they were taught in "relevant" courses, it is too late for them -- and they are no longer the teachers' responsibility.

Even as a graduate student in economics, I did not see the relevance of a little article by Friedrich Hayek, titled "The Use of Knowledge in Society," that was assigned reading in Milton Friedman's course at the University of Chicago. A few years later, however, I was beginning my own teaching career and had to teach a course on the Soviet economy -- about which I knew nothing.

As I read through many studies of the Soviet economy in preparation for teaching my course, and was puzzled by all the strange and counterproductive economic practices in the Soviet Union, it then began to dawn on me that what Hayek had said applied to these otherwise inexplicable Soviet actions. For the first time, years later, I saw the relevance of what he had written.

Fast forward another 15 years. I was now writing a book that would be a landmark in my career. It was titled "Knowledge and Decisions" -- a 400-page book building on what Hayek had said in a little essay.

Just a few years ago, I was stopped on the streets of San Francisco by a young black man who shook my hand and told me that reading "Knowledge and Decisions" had changed his life. He had seen the relevance of these ideas -- at a younger age than I had.