When I was in college I asked the same questions most of my students are asking: What does this have to do with me? Relevance is a tricky thing since it often doesn't become apparent until after the fact. You can't always know what's relevant until you've learned about it and used it.
I majored in telecommunications. This was before the internet, the cell phone, the laptop, the iPad. You get the idea. I was interested in doing audio and video production. On the side, I took irrelevant courses like everyone else: history, philosophy, science.
Now, I teach philosophy. Online. So, how irrelevant was my college experience? Not irrelevant at all. Very relevant now, if not quite as obvious then.
Virtually every course I took in college has been useful in some way for me.
Audio production: I record my music using computer recording software. But, the principles of editing and mixing were learned in that course.
Video production: I make videos and post them to YouTube. Different technology, same principles.
Philosophy courses: At the time, irrelevant electives taken because I enjoyed them. Today, it's what I do.
History courses: Philosophy is the history of ideas. Everything has a history and understanding that allows us to understand much of what will happen in the future. Took a while to learn that lesson but the foundation laid in college was important.
Science courses: Philosophy and science continue to converge, each informing the other. No understanding of how the world works and how to think about it is possible without an understanding of scientific principles.
So, what are you taking now that is irrelevant? Are you sure about that? Will it be irrelevant in 20 years? 40? 60? Are you still sure?
In The Karate Kid, Daniel seeks out a mentor to teach him karate. He soon finds himself in a situation where all he seems to be learning from Mr. Miyagi is how to wax his car, paint his house, and sand his deck. What could be more irrelevant to learning karate. But, he soon realizes his mistake. Watch the short video below:
So, what you're learning in school is irrelevant? Are you sure about that? Are you sure there's no good reason to learn history, science, mathematics, logic, critical thinking? Maybe you don't have a Mr. Miyagi to show you the relevance of what you're doing. maybe you need to look for it and find it on your own!
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 education meaningful?
What is creativity? Can it be learned? How do creative people think? These are some of the questions that Jonah Lehrer looks at in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. One insight I think is particularly important and provides a useful argument for the importance of learning as much as you can even if it seems irrelevant to your area of study or your current job. Creativity requires the mixing of ideas and in order to do this you need to be exposed to many different ideas from many different areas of knowledge.
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator
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