The Irrelevance of Knowledge

Back in my teaching days, “relevance” was one of the things I hated most.

Part of it was the inevitable politicization — “making X relevant to students’ lives” never means anything other than “using X as an excuse to preach tedious Leftist politics at a captive audience.”  But the other part was: Knowledge is supposed to be irrelevant.  You’re the student; it’s your job to make it relevant to your life.  That’s what “learning” means.

Let’s suppose I assign the Meditations.   “Relevance,” in the Ed Biz sense, is pretty much nil.  The only thing Marcus Aurelius and a modern college kid have in common is their shared humanity.  That’s their only point of comparison.  But… that’s enough, because that’s where the learning happens.

Is Marcus a good man?  A hypocrite?  A stuffed shirt?  Is he a manly man, or a whiny emo kid?  Whatever you choose, ask yourself why you see him that way… then ask yourself, How did Marcus see himself?  Marcus’s isn’t the easiest head to get into, but it’s far from the toughest.  If nothing else, you’ve learned a little bit of empathy from the exercise.

Then consider his doctrine.  Would you want to be a Stoic?  Can you be a Stoic, in the post-Freudian world?  Now you’ve learned a bit about the assumptions underpinning Marcus’s world, and your own, and the differences between the two.

Let’s say it’s not possible to be a full-blown Stoic anymore (that whole “unconscious” thing).  Does any of Marcus’s advice still apply?  How much of it is culture-bound?  Can we re-write even his most Stoical maxims into something applicable today?

Then go back to the beginning.  What was your opinion of Marcus before, and what is it now?  If it changed, why?

I’ve spelled it out this way — at the risk of insulting the reader — to illustrate that this process used to be automatic.  I didn’t have to teach college kids how to do this, because they’d gotten it in high school, in junior high, from their parents.  Nowadays, of course, I can’t teach it to them — it’s not relevant, because they already know everything worth knowing; my job is just to put the A in the grade book, for record-keeping purposes.

Yeah, we’re pretty much screwed.

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11 thoughts on “The Irrelevance of Knowledge

  1. MBlanc46

    Your potential students are certainly missing something since you’ve abandoned the enterprise. I do find it a bit surprising that you’d pick Marvus Aurelius and Stoicism as your example. No one read such things in my philosophy student days late 60s early 70s. We spent a day or so on it in a history of philosophy class, but nobody read the Meditations. I imagine that the same considerations apply to the guys that I taught—Plato, Hume, Kant—during my brief tenure in the academy. They were all racist, sexist, and homophobic (except maybe for Plato), as well as not being Women of Color.

    1. Severian Post author

      I picked the most “irrelevant” thing that sprung to mind. I also see Stoicism, capital-S, tossed around on the “manosphere” sites sometimes… which means they probably skimmed Meditations, thought it sounded manly, and declared themselves “Stoics.” It’s a leeeetle bit more than that, boys. 😉

  2. Dan Patterson

    Frustrating isn’t it? Watching, or being forced to participate, in the death spiral of a culture. When it goes red many people will be shocked, standing around with their mouths open saying “How did this happen?”. And red it will go, brother, because it always does and it’s always a shock.
    Government control over schools could be the most insidious and malignant of the insults. Take a look at an outline of classes from (you pick the grade or college year) during the 1920s – through – today and “compare and contrast”.

    1. Severian Post author

      I often say that the institution that granted me a doctorate wouldn’t even have admitted me as an undergraduate as late as 1960.

  3. Ganderson

    I have it on very good authority that Emmanuel Kant was a real pissant, who was very rarely stable…

    I hate relevance too- it leads to junking all kinds of interesting stuff, and all that crappy music that has wormed its way into many Christian services. Yes , I’m talking about you, Marty Haugen and Michael Joncas
    Besides, most kids don’t know enough to decide whether something is interesting or not.

  4. Joseph Moore

    Somehow, wandered through a Great Books program (St. John’s) in the 70s, for which I am grateful. However, as times goes on, I’m more and more aware of how much feebler my education, which makes me insanely well-educated by modern standards, is that what was run-of-the-mill education 100 years ago. I speak and read 1 language; my math chops stop, effectively, at algebra, I’ve maybe half a dozen poems memorized. More to the point: when I do read even 100 year old authors, I find myself googling references and running phrases in Latin (which I’ve never taken a class in), German (which i I snuck through in high school without learning anything), French (which I studied!) Greek (which I studied even more!) through online translators just to get the gist.

    I would have never got out of a decent high school in 1900; I got a bachelors and a masters by 2000.

    Yikes. BUT: I can freakin’ READ. I can even read science papers (a hobby) and, while the meat grinding might be over my head, I can suss out whether the approach and, indeed, the assumptions and questions even admit of a scientific answer – an answer that follows the rules of “real” science. This basic skill maddeningly escapes even most scientists.

    On the philosophy front: talking with a junior relative, who took a intro to philosophy class. The prof spent the entire class on Hegel. My head nearly exploded. Start with an incoherent poser, at best make sure the kids will flee philosophy forevermore, with the slight chance you’ll claim additional victims for gentle nihilism. Great.

  5. Pickle Rick

    I couldn’t wrap my mind around the philosophy when I was exposed to it in my college days. I ended up doing my paper on Machiavelli‘s “The Art of War” and von Clausewitz’s “On War” on the philosophy of war, rather than effeminate psychopaths and deranged lunatics like the European philosophers of 1848-1948.

    I rather think that might be a bit more practical very soon than I thought it ever would be in my undergraduate days in the mid to late 1990s

  6. Rod1963

    I’d say the blame lays with the HS and college instructors for making teens hate learning, making subjects boring and irrelevant.Not to mention their abject failure of teaching the young people the critical thinking and logic skills needed in life, which is not hard and doesn’t take very long. if anything most of them were only good at turning teenagers into cogs to populate Herman-Miller cube farms.

    None of the skills Severian writes about were taught in my HS when I attended it in the late 70’s. Maybe the ACT classes taught it, but it was kept away from us proles. At least the science and shop instructors taught us something of value.

    Lastly, is philosophy relevant? At one time it was at least the Romans, Greeks and others thought so. Sadly modern academics have managed to make this portion of our Western heritage inaccessible to the masses.. In all my life I have never met any college graduate who had anything good to say about philosophy class. Those instructors were certainly doing something wrong, very wrong.

    1. Martinian

      Teacher here—the rot sets in well before high school. Last few years, I’ve been attempting damage control and trying to turn the ship around. I think we’ll get there where I am, but it’s a project measured in 5-10 year intervals, and you kind of have to write off the first several years as too far gone to make a major difference.

      I agree that “relevance” is the culprit. Under that name you get drill work, focus, patience, and mastery thrown out the window in favor of short-term feelgood indoctrination and developmentally inappropriate “critical thinking”. The kids learn to hate learning because they never actually master the basics when they’re young enough that drills and repetition are what many of them WANT to do (get that gold star!), so anything even moderately sophisticated later on makes them feel stupid because they have to go through it sooooo sloooowly.

      No one likes to do things that make him feel stupid, and that’s precisely what our education system is designed to do for the lower 75%. (Cf. Our host’s previous comments about the Commie system being designed to sift out the Consomol stars and filter them into a self-anointed elite)

  7. Jay Carter

    Today’s college kids reinforce something I heard a long time ago.

    There are more horse’s asses, than there are horses.

  8. Frip

    Since nobody knows what the hell rotten chestnuts means, might you change the name of the blog to Pretty Much Screwed.

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