A popular topic of education reform articles lately is the subject of student engagement. A common diagnosis for the lack of student engagement is that students are not finding the information presented in class relevant to them. The proposed solution is often that professors must show students how the subject they’re studying really is relevant. I disagree!
If students are not finding the subjects they study relevant, then they are not looking for relevance. Why is it that professors must point out relevance? What responsibility do students have for making their own education meaningful?
It is often conceded by educators that, in fact, the subject they’re teaching is not relevant so they simply change what they are teaching to suit the demands of students. This is a serious mistake. It ignores the real relevance that every (yes, I said every) subject has to a student’s experience. It ignores the importance of students finding out for themselves how a subject is relevant. And, it implicitly concedes that the only subjects worth studying are those whose relevance is immediately obvious. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Every subject is relevant: While this point may be difficult to demonstrate, it can be done with every subject in a standard curriculum. For example, if you have a student majoring in allied health and they want to maintain that taking your course in philosophy or economics or psychology is not relevant to their major that means they are not being active learners and searching for relevance. In fact, you can pick any major and any course not directly related to that major and find the relevance between them if you are willing to actively search. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself. If you can’t find the relevance email me and I will provide you some guidance. Challenge your students to make these connections confident in the knowledge that they are there. After all, Steve Jobs famously found calligraphy relevant to his interest in computers.
Students need to be active in their learning: This is an important component of student engagement but it is not often enough expressed in terms of the student’s responsibility. Why should instructors always be responsible for making a subject engaging? Does the educator owe the student an entertaining class? I don’t mean to imply that courses ought to be boring. But, a truly active learner can find the interest in any subject matter. Sometimes they will be able to do this because of the professor’s engaging style. But, sometimes they may have to do this in spite of the professor’s lack of engagement. So much the better for the life lesson this presents. Everything useful will not be presented in a palatable form. Sometimes you have to do your own digging.
Relevance is not the only educational value: In the mania for relevance we often forget that this is not the only reason for studying a particular subject. Art History is not relevant to the accounting major? So what! It might be that the study of art is a good thing irrespective of its relevance. Yes, I still maintain that it is possible to find the relevance but if you cannot this is no reason to maintain that a subject is not worth studying.
Some academic subjects may never help your job prospects or contribute monetarily to your career. But, studying these subjects may end up doing much more for you. They may broaden and enrich your experience, introduce you to new interests, challenge you to think in new ways. The search for relevance seems somewhat narcissistic in that it rests on the assumption that the only things worth studying are things I care about. But, we don’t live in a solipsistic world. We live in a world of other people, other cultures, and other interests. Learning that might be one of the most important lessons to be gained from your academic studies. Is that relevant enough?