Education: The Relevance Myth

One of the dominant buzzwords in education reform these days is “relevance.” In what is supposed to be news to teachers, we are told that we need to ensure that our lessons are relevant to the lives of our students. It’s not just that this most obvious of concepts is presented to teachers as if it is revolutionary that bothers me; it’s that the push for relevance seems to mean lowering our expectations at the same time.

Enter John Foley, an English teacher from Washington, who believes we should not only throw out books with troublesome words and ideas, but replace them with ones that are easier to read:

Even if Huck Finn didn’t contain the N-word and demeaning stereotypes, it would remain a tough sell to students accustomed to fast-paced everything. The novel meanders along slower than the Mississippi River and uses a Southern dialect every bit as challenging as Shakespeare’s Old English.

I can’t avoid the pedantic observation that someone who believes Shakespeare wrote in Old English probably shouldn’t be teaching literature, but it’s not the worst of the argument. Foley seems to have embraced the mantra of relevance, suggesting we should replace challenging literature from other times in our history with more accessible, more familiar texts. Why teach Harper Lee when John Grisham is available? Why teach Shakespeare when Lost is on Wednesday nights? (Season premiere tonight, by the way!)

Great teaching and real student knowledge will never come from exposing students to the familiar and mundane. Real learning comes from finding ways in which the unfamiliar is relevant to our lives, not just exposing ourselves to the ideas and texts that are comfortable.