Monday, June 10, 2013

In praise of relevance

If there is one group of people who have never stood up in front of a group of craft apprentices and try to interest them in something that they had no desire to know and saw no need to know, it is the the one that argues against the concept of 'relevance' in education. Howard Jacobson has just added an elegant contribution to the genre.
I remember where I was when “relevance” entered the education debate. I remember where I was standing, what window I was looking out of, what bleak landscape I surveyed. That it would come to no good – that it demeaned those it pretended to help by assuming limits to their curiosity; that it denied those it offered to empower, cutting off their access to “irrelevant” intellectual pleasure and enlightenment; that it was in every essential philistine in that it narrowed the definition of learning to the chance precincts of an individual’s class or upbringing – I was certain. The education system I benefited from assumed an equality of eagerness for knowledge, and an equality of right to acquire it. “Relevance”, as the Children’s Laureate’s urgency to promote a lost literacy proves, has benefited no one.
The problem with the debate is that it confuses definitions of what is meant by 'relevance'. Jacobson assumes that 'relevance' is a process of exclusion. It labels and limits. Students are ghettoised by gender, ethnicity and class, being taught only what is deemed appropriate to them. Utterly patronising, it reflects the world of the eleven plus exam where children were divided and segregated according to supposed aptitudes and their life chances determined by external authorities. They are denied the deep pleasures of education that the elite take for granted. I have every sympathy with his revulsion. Only this is not what it means.

Rather than exclusion, 'relevance' is a process of inclusion, of broadening the curriculum not segmenting it. In my own discipline of history, those specialists beavering away in working class, women's and black history have broadened our understanding of the past. History is the better for it. My forthcoming book (shameless, utterly shameless) is another example, arguing for the need to include a range of neglected thinkers in the intellectual history of the 19th century radical milieu. Every curriculum is of necessity a selection. All the advocates of 'relevance' are saying is that the selection that underpinned the traditional curriculum WAS a process of exclusion and that we need to include the histories that were rejected and marginalised as well. We need Nelson, Wilberforce AND Mary Seacole, not one or the other.

If this process gives students someone they can identify with all well and good, but here I echo one of Jacobson's main points:
I certainly see the argument for schoolchildren to be introduced early to the great issues that bear on racism – the Holocaust and slavery, for example – but that’s not because of the special relevance they have for Jews and black people. It’s because knowing about them matters to everyone.
 Precisely. Inclusion matters to us all.

But there is one other point that the critics miss. Their assumption is that a 'relevant' curriculum is fixed and static. In reality, a curriculum only maps out what can become an open-ended journey and what matters is the starting point. If people are going to set out on that journey, then they need to be able to take that first step. This means that you have to start from where the students are. 'Relevance' is only one tool in making learning accessible and interesting. And it is only the beginning. Once people are engaged then everything opens out, not simply the 'relevant'. I could fill this blog with anecdotes about how people have started with a narrow 'relevant' focus and ended up with much wider horizons (my favourite is story is that of a woman I worked with in HE who began her journey into education by doing an evening course in belly dancing). I sometimes wonder if, without that start, they would ever have made it.

Jacobson concludes,
The answer to a history course that doesn’t interest children is not more digestible history; it’s better history teaching.
This is a cop out. Clearly curriculum plays a role in deciding whether someone enjoys something or not. There are bits of history that leave me completely cold, no one could interest me in them. Yet there are others that have caught me by surprise and turned into enthusiasms. There will always be students who are not interested in history. That is because they are not interested in history. Learning cannot be forced. But it is a lot more likely to happen if a student thinks that there is some point to it. And there is always the chance that some can be enticed in if the door is open and inviting. The idea of 'relevance' is simply to make that door open a little wider.

Jacobson is a lovely writer, but his rhetorical flourishes don't convince here. For example, what on earth does "It’s not history’s job to be relevant to us; it’s our job to be relevant to history" mean? Then again, analogy is the last refuge of a dodgy argument and this one is a pearler:  "A person who has trouble learning to drive isn’t advantaged by being taught only how to crash". Eh?  To me the problem is that education is an ideological battlefield, especially history for some unfathomable reason. These ideological wars are often fought with confused concepts and can be far removed from the reality faced by the poor bloody infantry. It is tough enough on the front line without the determined attempt by the inexpert to remove one item from their armoury.

1 comment:

lostmysocks said...

'It’s not history’s job to be relevant to us; it’s our job to be relevant to history'

This really did make me laugh!