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reed magazine logoWinter 2009

The Ideology of Relevance

by Marvin Levich

Condensed from a speech to the Association of American Colleges in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1969

The question is . . . “What should be the impact of the ideology of relevance on humanistic studies?”

Let me first address the nature of the ideology, the first trait of which I shall call that of “external justification.” It is expressed in the currently voguish question, “What is the relevance of a liberal arts education, what is the relevance of this or that course in the curriculum, what is the relevance of teaching this or that course in this or that way?”


In the context of its asking, the question requires that courses be justified in the light of some showing to the effect that the giving of them will contribute to the amelioration or elimination of political and social evil. I call it “external justification” because it requires that what is done in a college is to be judged in respect of its effect upon the social order and, further, in respect of those effects that are external to, or independent of, the properties of education or learning, per se.

There are, of course, some things the doing of which we justify in this way. We take a bus because it gets us somewhere, not because of any value in the bus ride itself. (At least, that is why I take a bus). We take an aspirin because it reduces our fever, not because the taking of it has any merit, per se. That is another way of saying that if aspirins did not succeed in reducing our fever, we would stop manufacturing and taking them. The anti-intellectualism of the view at issue lies in the fact that it leads us to talk about education as we do buses and aspirins, to try to find the cultural Florida which will justify the trip, the social fever which will justify swallowing the pill.

But, of course, the pursuit of learning is not at all like this. The properties which make it what it is are identical with those which make it of value to the society in which it is pursued. If it is successful, the students who pursue it learn what is true and what is not, and how to find it out, and learn further that there are different ways of finding it out according to subject-matter, and different degrees of certainty which, depending upon the subject-matter, they can attach to their findings. If we think that society is the better for having in it people who have learned these things, then education is relevant to society. If we don’t, we talk of destinations and fevers.

This is why I find the question about the relevance of education to be so clearly anti-intellectual. There is an answer to the question. I have just given it. And the answer will be rejected as unresponsive exactly to the extent that knowledge and understanding, per se, are rejected as valueless. Since those who pose the question do find this answer unresponsive. I have no doubt that the asking of it already reflects a repudiation of the intellectual life. One particularly good way of finding out what a person means by a question is to find out what he will be prepared to accept as appropriate answer.

This is why I maintain that what I have called the “trait of external justification” relegates intellectual inquiry, and therefore its institutional setting, to the role of morally neutral instrument to be used, modified or rejected, as we do any instrument, according to the purpose for which we take it up and of which it is the logical servant.

To the question of what is to be done about this, I will give you an answer that I am absolutely certain you will regard as being silly as it is drab. The answer is “Nothing.” Let me explain. I do not mean to suggest by it that what is now being done within humanistic studies is perfect, that there are no new topics to be considered, no new problems to be investigated, no new methods to be contrived which refine, supplement or replace what is already being done. Nor do I think it a necessary evil to have courses in black history or the literature of revolution. What I do think is that there are no changes of this kind, large or small, that can at once satisfy what is demanded by the ideology of relevance and preserve the intellectual integrity of the material presented.

These are strong words. I am afraid that some may find them offensive. But I say them because I think them to be true. I say them because I think that those of us who value humanistic studies, and indeed all of higher education, now have something to fight for, and against, and that unless we are clear about what is involved in the fight and respond with honor, we will be aiding those think rather less of the academy than do we in the business of its dismantling.

reed magazine logoWinter 2009