Irrelevance as virtue in higher education

To murder a quote, ‘When I hear talk of relevance, I reach for my revolver!’

Relevance is a common mantra in the contemporary university, made popular by the increasing commodification of education. Its precise meaning, however, varies with the speaker.

Academic staff think it refers to vocational training. After all, the university has positioned itself as a source of human capital accumulation and students pay to enhance their ability to compete in the global labour market. A university education makes this possible but only if it is relevant. So academics market their courses as stepping stones to the imagined future careers of students. And if it ain’t relevant, it doesn’t make the cut.

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Students do worry about their job prospects but are more concerned about workload. Some course demand a lot of work. But why bother with topics and issues if they’re not useful. Time spent on irrelevancies could be better used on a pre-digested, stripped down curriculum that would allow students to attain a degree more efficiently. Or they could devote more of their meagre energies and resources to friends, parties or working. After all, university is just one small component of their busy, diverse and engaging lives, a temporary though essential transition to a desirable lifestyle.

Again, imagination plays a part. By definition, students lack knowledge. As such, they don’t know what they need to learn – they need experts to point the way. That’s the rationale for university, even if it sounds rather less than democratic. But students have seen themselves in the mirror of consumer culture and know they are individuals. Moreover, they know the customer is always right. And in a market-based, demand-driven university system, expertise counts for little. Students imagine a career, then plot the shortest path to their goal. Instrumental reasoning, efficiency, achievement: it’s a simple equation.

In the contest over the meaning of relevance, the academic is bound to lose. Students have an endless selection of possible futures at their fingertips. Academics are focused on one area of study and its demands. Courses will never be entirely ‘relevant’ because academics can never anticipate every eventuality spinning in the student imagination or unfolding in a yet-to-unfold future. Satisfaction remains elusive. Academics lunge at every new technology and pedagogy in a desperate effort to achieve relevance. They fire at moving targets they themselves are helping to set in motion. As humility, gratitude and reality leach out of our society, so the potential for disappointment in the student body grows with each generation.

But, whoever wins, relevance is guaranteed to narrow the field. Education used to be all about widening horizons, opening the mind, expanding possibilities. An education used to differ from training because it prepared students for an unknown future characterised by contingency and chance – that is, for reality. Education aimed at transforming the individual student so they were ready anything not just for one narrowly defined career.

Relevance reverses the aim. Now universities seek an efficient allocation of resources. This remit rationalises knowledge delivery, funnelling minds towards precisely targeted objectives and delimited skill sets. Unless knowledge can be fully and explicitly specified in advance like the clauses of a contract, then it can’t be taught. It must be tangible and measurable, with scientific forms of measurement that are continually refined and clarified. Each objective must be written and rewritten to capture in detail the exact ‘learning outcomes’ achievable by the dedicated student. And, yes, they are termed ‘outcomes’ not ‘objectives’ as if an efficiently engineered course can somehow guarantee the result.

This increasing ‘precision’ leads to an inevitable simplification and narrowing of focus. Little room for imagination, serendipity or risk. Little room for the tacit, even ineffable deep learning that should underlays the crust of propositional content. The rationalisation of learning is like trying to grasp water in the fist. And the learning outcomes are forecasts with the certainty of reading entrails.

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Thus relevance strangles education.

Eric Porter is an historian who until recently taught politics and political economy at RMIT.




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Irrelevance as virtue in higher education

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