The scourge of ‘relevance’
There is something magical about libraries. The physical presence of so much human knowledge and literature should spur even the least bookish amongst us to want to read. So, it was with eagerness that I made a long overdue visit to our school library.
My school, like many others, is on a literacy drive. Having finally realised that churning out dozens of functionally illiterate pupils every year falls somewhat short of fulfilling their purpose, the school is encouraging all staff to promote reading. So, I have instigated independent reading every Tuesday morning with my tutor group of year eights. It was this decision that bought me to the school library.
The great Victorian educationalist and schools inspector Matthew Arnold believed that public education should teach the Canon, a publically recognised but constantly evolving selection of humankind’s greatest intellectual achievements. He defined this as ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’.
What confronted me in the school library was less the best that has been thought and said, and more an arbitrary collection of lowbrow, transient trash. On prominent display was the 1998 edition of the Virgin book of football records, next to a raft of ghost written footballers’ autobiographies. Kerry Katona’s opus figured largely, as did various book treatments of popular television shows. Secondary school pupils should of course be permitted to read such books, but the complete lack of any alternative resembling real literature in what purports to be a place of learning was startling. Tucked away on the fiction shelves I saw a spine that was notably lacking in lurid colours and splodgy text. It was an old copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, a lonely reminder of the days when schools had intellectual aspirations for their pupils.
The low grade of books in my school library is the product of a pernicious idea that has become entrenched in British schools – the need for ‘relevance’. For decades, the inability of pupils to engage with traditional topics has been blamed on the fact that they are not ‘relevant’ to the pupils’ lives. Relevance has become a guiding principle in today’s educational culture, and ‘make it relevant’ is the ultimate classroom panacea. So, in English lessons pupils study the lyrics of pop songs, in RE lessons they compare bible stories with story lines in Eastenders, and in history lessons they are told that Henry VIII was the ‘Gangster’ of Tudor England.
Such thinking is extremely condescending towards the natural curiosity and intelligence of our pupils. It assumes that they are so myopic that they can only take an interest in something directly related to their lives. In the process, the fascination of academic subjects is sucked out, and the value in learning them disappears.
A great teacher once told me that the point of compulsory education is to make pupils answer questions they would not otherwise think of asking. This is the exact opposite of what a ‘relevant’ curriculum does, as it fails to encourage pupils to look beyond the confines of their own lives. Education should expand a child’s horizons, not pander to them. A school library has the power to transport pupils to ancient civilisations and distant lands. It can place them in the company of great minds and extraordinary individuals. It can involve them in the triumphs and tragedies of literature’s greatest creations. Relevance is the exact opposite of what a good school library should provide.