The irrelevance of ‘relevance’

by rightscholarship

One purpose of this blog is to help fight left-wing dominance in academia, but another purpose is to push for for inclusive academic discourse, so that scholars of all political persuasions, including ‘apolitical’ scholars, can engage in productive debate and collaboration. One of the patron intellectual saints of Right Scholarship is Julien Benda, who in his famous 1927 work, The Treason of the Intellectuals, attacked certain French intellectuals for descending into the realm of partisan right-wing politics. While I don’t believe that intellectualism and politics can ever be separated, I do believe the former should never serve the latter.

Unfortunately, current academic trends are moving away from everything that Benda stood for. We live in an age of “knowledge mobilization” where knowledge must prove itself socially relevant and useful as a means of bettering the world. See, for example, this section of the SSHRC site on “Connecting with Society.” Already, however, it’s becoming clear that this strategy is only making academia less relevant. Ideas trumpeted as being so ‘innovative’ even three or four years ago now seem dated. The problem is, academics have never been adept at instigating political change, even if they have sometimes been exceptionally adept at slavishly following political trends.

In trying to be ‘relevant,’ academics can easily commit intellectual treason by working against what has always been the purpose of academia: to add to the store of human knowledge. Are we really to believe that the scholarship of the past was irrelevant? Even if the much-derided ‘ivory tower’ once existed, good scholarship of all varieties has never been irrelevant. It has always developed our collective human intelligence, allowing later scholars and thinkers to add new meaning to, or draw new connections between, ideas that may have once seemed only of interest to specialists. We know that the most apparently abstract or arcane knowledge can become relevant when historical circumstances change. Aiming for ‘relevance’ is a short-term goal, and serves only the needs and desires of those benefitting from the historical moment.