The Alcove

“How is this Relevant?” And Who Wants to Know?

Two essays chip away at the question of “relevance,” one that is neither as straightforward nor as innocuous as it sounds.

By Nathan Pippenger

Over at The Hedgehog Review’s blog, Matthew Braswell notices that, nowadays, worries about “relevance” seem to afflict nearly everybody, from movie stars to students to politicians to entire generations (usually older ones). Any term deployed so promiscuously risks being emptied of meaning, but Braswell detects anxiety behind its ubiquity: “Why has relevance become so prominent as a goal and a de facto accomplishment? The uncertainty and instability that pervade contemporary economic and cultural life must play a role.…Most of us don’t know exactly what the future will require of us. All we can do is hope that we are somehow relevant to whatever is happening.”

The essential vagueness of such a goal—fashioning yourself so that you “matter” to whatever happens—creates an ideal vacuum to be filled by societal obsessions masquerading as common sense. Unsurprising, then, that demands for “relevance” usually circulate around those sectors of society that are conspicuously unsuccessful at, or uninterested in, generating either profit or fame. Masquerading as a seemingly reasonable warning against obscurity and navel-gazing, the demand for relevance often betrays an unhealthy cultural single-mindedness, often functioning in practice as the demand that experts in one field be evaluated by somebody else’s standards—leading to an excess of short-term thinking and a tendency to instrumentalize nearly everything.

Braswell contends that the “pursuit of relevance” really blurs the boundaries between two ways in which we’re all “chasing a center”: the desperate search either to assure ourselves that people still care about us, or else to find economic stability—an assurance that people still value our talents and labor. But what about pursuits that produce neither fame nor wealth? For them, the question “how is this relevant?” is not really a question, and their fate is predictable enough. President Obama himself is not immune: as he infelicitously mused a couple of years ago, “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” In a public mind that equates relevance with remuneration, the meaning of the remark was clear: What could be relevant to college students about art history? (Obama later apologized, distinguishing his point about career paths from an unintended dig at the “value of art history.”)

The President’s remarks were an almost-unconscious repetition of a widespread attitude—one that puts large sectors of the university, and other similar institutions, on notice. And even academics whose work is closer to “relevance” than the besieged art historians are struggling to come up with a response. Take historians, whose expertise has been in high demand lately, due to its potential relevance to current events. As historian Jeremy Adelman notes in The Chronicle Review, some members of the profession have embraced this “crusade for relevance” that repositions historians as policy advisers: “America’s needs can give history relevance.”

Employing history in the service of better political judgment is all well and good, as Adelman readily admits. But as he also warns, it “represents only one slice of what historians have to offer.” What happens to historical eras deemed irrelevant? And what if that judgment changes—if “the lure of relevant history today” ultimately “squeeze[s] out the need for multiple histories tomorrow”?

There are other problems. For one thing, we’re overloading the idea of “relevance” with too many biases and assumptions that deserve further scrutiny. The next time a pursuit is threatened with the skeptical question, “How is this relevant?,” we should pause before beginning our standard litany about the professional benefits of studying English literature, or the reassurance that philosophy majors earn more than you’d think, or the ways in which STEM students can improve in their own field after a short tour through a seemingly-unrelated humanities discipline. Instead, we should try the response: “Relevant to whom? Relevant for what?” That response might rightly unsettle some of the careerist, instrumental assumptions that masquerade as a concern for relevance, and redirect the conversation toward the more fruitful question of what is worthwhile.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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