Making Relevance Relevant

Anarchy– the Federal system– has served the U.S. education system well, helping to create a kind of hybrid vigor often squashed by centralized authority. On the other hand, it also makes the system vulnerable to certain kinds of economic and social pressures. Professionally, too, the lack of a strong labor movement in U.S. higher education means teachers don’t have much leverage when it comes to resisting or shaping change. In that sense, anarchy stifles innovation by sewing chaos.

That’s why I find discussions of ‘relevancy’ and, more specifically, ‘vocation’ both frustrating and depressing. Whatever creative energy schools direct at creating more effective curricula, it won’t likely be teachers defining relevancy. It’s more likely that the financial crisis will simply allow administrators to pursue their own ‘shovel ready’ agendas. In many places that means minimizing or eliminating those pesky liberals arts (aka Philosophy). Writing won’t suffer, but Literary Studies watch out.

That’s what’s bubbling along in the back of my brain when I read “Making College Relevant” this weekend. I think relevancy is important– the last chapters of my book are about linking writing more closely to the workplace– but it’s also a very slippery concept. In a writing class, in particular, relevancy can easily fall into a narrowly defined communicative competency. That’s important, of course, but empty if not accompanied by the existential challenges of authentic education.

I’m not surprised that the business leaders quoted in the piece seem old-fashioned in this sense. They know that creativity requires the wide and deep reading and thinking that, ironically, are associated with a traditional liberal arts-based degree. In the end, it’s not relevancy that needs to be sold to parents and students, it’s the idea of knowledge for its own sake. That would make relevancy relevant. As my dad used to say, first you get educated, then you pick a job.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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