The Virtue of Irrelevance

Future Symphony Institute

How many writers, educators, and opinion formers, urgently wishing to convey the thoughts and feelings that inspire them, have found themselves confronted with the cry “that’s not relevant?” In the world of mass communication today, when people are marshaled into flocks by social media, intrusions of the unusual, the unsanctioned, and the merely meaningful are increasingly resented if they come from outside the group. And this group mentality has invaded the world of education in ways that threaten the young.

It began long before Facebook and Twitter. Indeed it began with John Dewey, and his call for “child-centred education.” The influence of John Dewey over American thought in general, and education in particular, has never ceased to amaze me. If any writer has set out to illustrate what Schopenhauer meant by “unscrupulous optimism” it is Dewey, who disguised his middlebrow complacency behind a mask of wisdom, like an agony aunt for an old-fashioned women’s magazine. What could be more evidently a travesty of the nature and duties of the teacher than the idea that it is children and their interests that set the agenda for the classroom? And yet what idea is more likely to recruit the tender hearted, the ignorant, and the lazy? What a gift to the idle teacher, and what an assault on the child!

From the educational philosophy of Dewey sprang the “relevance revolution” in schooling. The old curriculum, with its emphasis on hard mathematics, dead languages, ancient history, and books that are too long to read, is portrayed as an offence to modern children, a way of belittling their world and their hopes for the future. To teach them to spell correctly, to speak grammatically, to adopt the manners and values of their parents and grandparents is to cut them off from their only available sphere of action. And in the place of all that so-called knowledge, which is nothing in itself save a residue of the interests of the dead, they should be given, we are told, their own curriculum, addressed to the life that is theirs.

The immediate effect of the relevance revolution was to introduce into the classroom topics relevant to the interests of their teachers – topics like social justice, gender equality, nuclear disarmament, third-world poverty, gay rights. Whole subjects were concocted to replace the old curriculum in history, geography, and English: “peace studies,” “world studies,” “gender studies,” and so on. The teaching of dead languages virtually ceased, and today in Britain, and doubtless in America too, it is a rare school that offers lessons in German, indeed in any modern language other than French or Spanish. Of course, it could be that less and less teachers are available with the knowledge required by the old curriculum. But it is a sad day for education when the loss of knowledge is described, instead, as a gain – when the old curriculum, based on subjects that had proved their worth over many decades, is replaced by a curriculum based purely on the causes and effects of the day. At any rate, to think that relevance, so understood, shows a respect for children that was absent from the old knowledge-based curriculum is to suffer from a singular deficiency in sympathy.

Respect for children means respect for the adults that they will one day become; it means helping them to the knowledge, skills, and social graces that they will need if they are to be respected in that wider world where they will be on their own and no longer protected. For the teacher, respect for children means giving them whatever one has by way of knowledge, teaching them to distinguish real knowledge from mere opinion, and introducing them to the subjects that make the mind adaptable to the unforeseen. To dismiss Latin and Greek, for example, because they are not “relevant” is to imagine that one learns another language in order, as Matthew Arnold put it, “to fight the battles of life with the waiters in foreign hotels.” It is to overlook the literature and history that are opened to the enquiring mind by these languages that changed the world; it is to overlook the discipline imparted by their deep and settled grammar. Ancient languages show us vividly that some matters are intrinsically interesting, and not interesting merely for their immediate use; understanding them the child might come to see just how irrelevant to the life of the mind is the pursuit of “relevance.”

Moreover the pursuit of irrelevant knowledge is, for that very reason, a mental discipline that can be adapted to the new and the unforeseeable. It is precisely the irrelevance of everything they knew that enabled a band of a thousand British civil servants, versed in Latin, Greek, and Ancient History, to govern the entire Indian sub-continent – not perfectly, but in many ways better than it had been governed in recent memory. It is the discipline of attending in depth to matters that were of no immediate use to them that made it possible for these civil servants to address situations that they had never imagined before they encountered them – strange languages, alphabets, religions, customs, and laws. It is no accident that it was a classical scholar – the judge Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1788 – who did the most to rescue Sanskrit literature from oblivion, who introduced the world, the Indian world included, to the Vedas, and who launched his contemporaries on the search for the principles and repertoire of classical Indian music.

All this is of great importance to the teacher who wishes to introduce children to the tradition of Western music, and to the listening culture of the concert hall. Hand-in-hand with the relevance revolution came the idea of the “inclusive” classroom – the classroom in which “no child is left behind,” whether or not adapted to the matter in hand. Music has suffered greatly from this, since it is a subject that can be properly taught only to the musical, and which therefore begins from an act of selection. Furthermore even the musical are subjected outside school to a constant bombardment of music in which banal phrases, assembled over the three standard chords and the relentless four in a bar, have filled the ear with addictive clichés. How, in such circumstances, does a musical education begin?

The classical repertoire, it goes without saying, is not “relevant” to the pop-trained ear. It is the creation of another and earlier world, one in which people encountered music only if they, or others in their vicinity, were involved in making it. It was a performance art, which brought people together in a uniquely coordinated way, and which was inseparable in its origins from the habit of improvising around a tune. Music was played, but also listened to, danced to, sung to, and studied for its intrinsic meaning. It was fundamental to the curriculum from the moment when Plato founded the Academy. From the rise of musicology at the Enlightenment to the Conservatoires and Colleges of Music today, music has been taught as a branch of accumulated knowledge, the significance of which can rarely be grasped by the untutored ear, and certainly not by the ear of the average child. Music as an academic discipline is about as “relevant” as Greek or Sanskrit. And no matter how hard we scholars emphasize the use of the useless, we will be dismissed in the name of relevance, and told that our curriculum means nothing to the young musical person today.

To counter this argument it is not enough to point to all the ways in which a relevant curriculum debases learning by making ignorance into the measure of what should be taught. For what we dismiss as ignorance is often the smoothed and adapted outer form of accumulated knowledge, like the simple manners of ordinary people that seem inept in sophisticated company only because some forms of sophistication depend upon hiding this reservoir of social knowledge. In like manner folk music and the traditions of improvisation from which it arises are forms of collective knowledge, and the same can be said for much pop music, including some of that which has carved grooves of addiction in the young musical ear.

The real objection to relevance is that it is an obstacle to self-discovery. Some sixty years ago I was introduced to classical music by teachers who did not waste time criticising my adolescent taste and who made no concessions to my age or temperament. They knew only that they had received a legacy and with it a duty to pass it on. If they did not do so the legacy would die. They discovered in me a soul that could make this legacy its own. That was enough for them. They did not ask themselves whether the classical repertoire was relevant to the interests that I then happened to have, any more than mathematicians ask whether the theorems that they teach will help their students with their accounting problems. Their assumption was that, since the musical knowledge that they wished to impart was unquestionably valuable, it could only benefit me to receive it. But I could not understand the benefit prior to receiving it. To consult my desires in the matter would have been precisely to ignore the crucial fact, which was that, until introduced to classical music, I would not know whether it was to be a part of my life.

Once we see the logic of my teachers’ position we must recognize that, if we know what music is, we have a duty to help young people to understand it, regardless of its “relevance.” We should do this as it has always been done, through encouraging our students to make music together. In the not too distant past every school had a choir whose members were taught to sing in parts and to read music in order to do so. This practice opened the ears of the choristers at once to the experience of voice-led harmony. From that it was a small step to lessons in harmony and counterpoint, and thence to classes in music appreciation.

If there is a point to musicology as a university discipline it surely lies here. The immense knowledge contained in the classical repertoire cannot be imparted in a day, and even when the young ear has begun to appreciate and the young fingers to perform the masterpieces of the repertoire, fully to understand all that they contain by way of emotional and dramatic knowledge is the study of many years. This knowledge fully justifies devoting a faculty of the university to collecting, augmenting, and transmitting. But, whatever else we say of it, this knowledge is not now and never was or will be relevant.

About the Author

Roger Scruton is the world's preeminent philosopher in the field of aesthetics. Having graduated with honors from Cambridge, he has subsequently held positions at some of the world's most prestigious institutions including the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, St Andrews, Princeton, and Boston. Roger was called to the Bar after his studies at the Inns of Court in London. He is a fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the British Academy. Moreover, Roger has been awarded the Czech Republic's Medal for Merit in recognition of his efforts to establish an underground university in Czechoslovakia during its last decade of communism. Today he serves as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. But his principal activity remains what it has been for the last 30 years, which is writing. Roger is an astonishingly prolific writer on a broad range of topics in several genres. His serious academic research has been in the area of aesthetics, with two books – The Aesthetics of Architecture and The Aesthetics of Music – that have made important contributions to their respective fields. In addition Roger has written essays, criticism, autobiography, invocations of country life, novels, and poems. He is deeply devoted to classical music and an accomplished amateur composer. For in case you missed it, somewhere in there he also found time to write two operas and the libretto for a third.
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  • Great article. We could consider the relevance of irrelevance a preparation stage for the other relevances, the first being about building-up the personality. First: Bildung, and then education. And classical music has a formative influence on the mind, and on the brain (which is not the same), which is important when growing-up. So, the disinterested activity of irrelevant things has the greatest influence on everything that follows because it operates on another level than practicalities.

    I would like to add the caveat that the idea to include the child’s character and natural, personal interests in the educational trajectory, is in itself a good idea, because when the young individual feels, has the strong experience, that it is part of a relationship in which it is respected (as Sir Roger already indicates), even if the relationship is in terms of knowledge an unbalanced one, learning goes much better. Most children are mental and emotional sponges. There is not a contradiction between respect for the child and the requirements of education if the teacher understands both sides of the bridge. In my own experience, fortunately quite long ago, the mechanical and authoritarian ‘instruction’ top-down by teachers who could not care less about to whom they were transmitting their important knowledge and understanding, had the opposite effect of what was intended – the mind locks itself up onto itself and wants to dwell somewhere else. Apart from playing the piano, I learned next to nothing at the conservatoire in terms of theory and composition in spite of 6 years of immense efforts by staff who merely repeated conventional stuff and my own immense efforts to try to pay attention. I learned most by myself, and by contacts with mature people who had something meaningful to say outside the context of conventional establishment. So, music can be a symbol of combining inner worth and relationships, and knowledge shared and transmitted, and thus: being enriched by subjectivity and human contact that is real. One is never too young to be respected and to be inspired to learn and receive wisdom.

  • I am a Gen X-er who was part of the first phase of this sort of “relevant” schooling and I bitterly resent how much I didn’t learn. The point of education should be to teach us to think. The classics (in all disciplines) give us a firm grounding in the human nature and how to learn. We’ve abandoned a classical education at our peril.

  • “From that it was a small step to lessons in harmony and counterpoint, and thence to classes in music appreciation.”

    And thence to classes in music appreciation?

    I am suspicious of the whole concept of ‘music appreciation’ as a matter of principle. And in practice there is little hard evidence that programmed instruction in music leads to an enhanced enjoyment of it, over and above the undoubted effects of repeated hearings. (I am not, of course, denying that people may derive lasting pleasure from their exposure to music as a result of music appreciation classes; what I am questioning is the role of the instruction that is offered in them.) For every empirical study that seems to show a clear positive effect of instruction upon aesthetic enjoyment, it is possible to cite one that suggests that it has little or no effect. Indeed, there are indications that instruction can actually have a negative effect.

    There is also an element of falsity in the relationship between the musician and the general public. For, as Bruno Nettl says, ‘The fruits of music, like science, are enjoyed daily by practically all of the population, but the academic musical establishment has made the lay public feel that without understanding the technicalities of musical construction, without knowledge of notation and theory, one cannot properly comprehend or deal with music.’

    Even the musician, however, might begin to wonder what it means properly to comprehend or deal with music when he reads Leonard B. Meyer’s statement that “neither memorization nor performance necessarily entail understanding…. It is possible to read, memorize and perform music that one does not really understand.”

    One wants to add: and to compose, listen to, and write about too!!….. For, with these additions, Meyer’s statement takes on a new meaning. Music is, as John Blacking says, ‘too deeply concerned with human feelings and experiences in society for it to be subject to arbitrary rules, like the rules of a game’.

  • I have been aware for several years now that 20th century philosophers in India regarded Max Müller as a literal saint for the work he did in rescuing Sanskrit texts. I have read extensively and thoroughly about Müller and the unfair rubbishing he has received from a few 21st century academics. But I was surprised to learn just this week about how thoroughly William Jones transformed both India and Europe. His legacy has been shoved firmly into the wastebasket first by the more money-minded colonialists who followed him, and then by the illiterate condemners of “orientalism.” I hope that millennials and GenZ scholars will have the courage to rediscover the real relations between early modern East and West and take the good along with the bad.

  • I agree with most of what you say in regards to classical music and discipline being a legacy that’s not for pussyfooting around.

    I had the benefit of classical guitar lessons when I was young, but also enjoyed a lot of pop, rock, blues, country and particularly jazz which is also a virtuosic and skilled discipline.

    As you are likely aware the early 20th century was a revolutionary period for music, caused by a few things. The Russian experimentation like Shostakovich’s changing of the quartet structure, or Stravinsky’s unusual explorations of harmony. Varese’s mad time signatures. Music concrete. Ragtime, which was a hybrid of the minuets, blues mixolydian and major/minor thirds. Out of ragtime into jazz and bop which demanded scales and arpeggios to be played in coherence with the cycle of fifths rather than fourths. (Blue train, John Coltrane). Furthermore the physics of the newly invented gramophone, and later the wireless were less sympathetic to bigger classical arrangements, and thus other types of music flourished.

    I don’t listen to music by the merits of the discipline which informed it’s composition. There is a lineage from serious music into popular which I think you wilfully overlook. There is much skill in writing or arranging a timeless song. You dismiss catchiness as a trivial thing as if it were commonplace. Sadly the practitioners of writing catchy songs are thin on the ground these days, and I think it should be one of the ideals of ‘good pop’ which can be enjoyed when intellectual music has been too taxing. No longer do I hear melodies as skilful as ‘all the things you are’ (Rodgers/Hammerstein), If I fell (Lennon/McCartney), Autumn almanac (Davies), Moon River (Mancini) Bohemian rhapsody (Queen). Many of these writers were versed in classical music. These compositions are executed with a brevity which engages the listener. The qualities they possess are not artefacts of a musical score, and yet people don’t tire of them like an old joke tires. To take pop music at face value as secular antiintellectualism is too absolutist for me, and is a little bit elitist. Classical music must survive, but it’s pedagogical dogma against musical developments elsewhere must die!

    So to conclude, I think classical lessons instilled an appreciation in me for serious music, but I always looked at the Phrygian and harmonic minor flavour of the late 19th century Spaniards as an ingredient in 20th century pop minor ballad. Even high culture borrows from high culture (Beethoven six variations on Nel cor peu), so before we dismiss pop music and why it’s relevant from the curriculum, shouldn’t we identify how it came to be?

    Like you have said before about this numbing repetitive stuff of the buzz saw synths, it’s hard to say a nice word about it. But it came from Pete Waterman who liked the funk brothers, who liked Django Reinhardt, who liked Irving Berlin, who liked Gabriel Faure, who liked Felix Mendelssohn, who liked JS Bach, regression ad infinitum. So I line up with you in saying good taste needs to be encouraged by the teachers and the curriculum, but if you’re teaching academically is it not best to demonstrate in the curriculum understanding of how tastes are formed so the student’s personal and subjective experience introduces critical thinking to their own taste?

    One big issue is that many people in our country have never experienced a full orchestra. Any progress in that department would be encouraged.

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