And then just as I’m complaining about the invocation of the great god Relevance, here comes Mark Bauerlein to preach Against Relevance:

As any trainer in sports, in the military, or in martial arts will report, however, to make the experience successful, training for it has to go well beyond it.  In martial arts, for instance, one goal is to prepare someone to handle a confrontation wisely, with proportional force and self-awareness.  Some confrontations may require physical defense, blocks and punches and kicks, and so the student has to be trained for them.  The training program, however, asks of students much more than the confrontation will demand.  Training involves high kicks, but rarely is it effective to throw one in a confrontation.  A low kick will suffice.  But in order to make that low kick effective, the student has to master high kicks.

The pattern applies to the cultural materials on the syllabus.  If teachers want students to discern the implicit meanings in commercial images, they should have students study images of more complexity and subtlety.  A few days with images taken from great photography and film will equip them to “read” music videos much more effectively than will a few days with those videos themselves.  Poetry by Alexander Pope and Edna St. Vincent Millay will do more for students’ verbal cognizance than will political advertisements and Twitter tweets.

This is the immediate virtue of anti-relevance.  If teachers want to raise critical thinking about contemporary mass culture, they should expose students to past high culture.  The language of Romantic poetry exercises critical thinking about language better than does the language of billboard jingles.  It’s a paradox, but it’s true.  If teachers want students to know the present and all its coarse enticements, they should immerse them in the best expressions of the past.

Mark is often too curmudgeonly to suit me, but there’s a lot of wisdom in this. I similarly argue, in my recent New Atlantis essay on McLuhan, that his success in limning new media stemmed largely from his thorough training in the old.


  1. Exactly. Or consider the young Picasso's superb draftsmanship, or the way that James Joyce mastered the techniques of traditional realistic narrative — as few had ever mastered them! — before going on to his radical literary experiments.

Comments are closed.