Idiocy of Relevance

Coming to grips with what education is for


The movie “The Big Lebowski” is the basis for some college coursework.  Yes, believe it or not, major universities offer classes based on television programs and movies.  Where cult films go, academics will follow.  Already in its second printing, “The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies,” is an essay collection of “Big Lebowski” academic reviews.[1] How could movies be the basis for campus education?  One word: relevance.

Thomas Sowell, arguably one of America’s most brilliant minds, has responded with an article entitled, “The Idiocy of Relevance.”  Dr. Sowell writes, “One of the many fashionable idiocies that cause American schools to produce results inferior to those in other countries is the notion that education must be ‘relevant’ to the students.”  Sowell continues, “Some educators embrace relevance out of expediency . . . It is the path of least resistance, though that path seldom leads upward.  By the time . . . students get out into the real world and discover the uselessness of what they were taught in ‘relevant’ courses, it is too late.”[2]

Reading classic literature has historically been the basic ethics course educators have used to get their students ready for said “real world.”  Vigen Guroian, University of Virginia professor, wrote his own article: “Why Businessmen Should Read Great Literature.”  In it Guroian contends, “Great literature has the power to ennoble our lives by showing us how . . . to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.  It . . . draws for us vital moral maps . . . with exemplary stories of . . . character, tested and forged in the furnace of the human comedy.”[3]

So it was with some shock that I read in The New York Times a title that speaks for itself, “In Tough Times, The Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.”[4] The Times later ran an article “Making Colleges Relevant.”[5] Thankfully, the opposing view was given voice in the second installment.  Anthony T. Kronman, a professor of law at Yale wrote the book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life.  Exploring “a life worth living,” Dr. Kronman, wants us to re-examine “what we care about and what we value,” a problem the humanities “are extremely well-equipped to address.”  The essence of a humanities education is reading the great literary and philosophical works, coming “to grips with the question of what living is for.”

25 years of my life has been given to teaching students from junior high through graduate school.  At times my education students came to me asking if they should take a methods course to be ‘relevant.’  My comment was always the same: the more content you know the better able you are to adapt to other methods.  As a researcher, writer, and teacher I am also a practitioner.  I want to make sure knowledge is not static, that it relates to real life and real people.  So, for me, it is absolutely ridiculous that universities have courses on the movie “The Big Lebowski.”  But it is absolutely imperative that our universities develop the Big Lebowski’s of our world.  For Prime Time America, this is Dr. Mark Eckel, personally seeking truth wherever it’s found.

The Idiocy of Relevance, Moody Radio Commentary, February, 2010

Dr. Mark Eckel, Professor of Old Testament, Crossroads Bible College


[2] Thomas Sowell, “The Idiocy of Relevance,” Townhall Online 28 February 2003.




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