‘Relevance’ and low expectation

Howard Jacobson (see link in earlier post) says: ‘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…has benefited no one.’

It remains unclear what the imperative can be to teach children in this way—reducing what they learn in school to the narrow horizons of those who most need their horizons expanded. Jacobson calls it a bleak landscape: and it seems to be a way of making children collectivised and conformist.

The tendency has gone beyond schools and examination boards. A glance at the children’s section in a bookshop suggests that it has invaded publishing houses too. And in the latest National Trust magazine, Robert Macfarlane notes that the current edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary has had a number of words removed as they are ‘no longer considered relevant to a modern-day childhood.’ The words include acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, conker, cowslip, crocus, cygnet, dandelion, fern, gorse, hazel, heather, heron, horse chestnut, ivy, kingfisher, lark, minnow, newt, otter, pasture, poppy, starling, sycamore, wren and willow.

It is almost as if we have among us a fifth column, whose ethos is not to encourage children to explore their higher altitudes, but to confirm and retain them in an ignorant adolescence.

Next post: literary bullying?