AN UNCOMMON THOUGHT

"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

01 February 2017

Irrelevant.


Roger Scruton on the virtue of irrelevance ...

Respect for children means respect for the adults that they will one day become; it means helping them to the knowledge, skills, and social graces that they will need if they are to be respected in that wider world where they will be on their own and no longer protected. For the teacher, respect for children means giving them whatever one has by way of knowledge, teaching them to distinguish real knowledge from mere opinion, and introducing them to the subjects that make the mind adaptable to the unforeseen. To dismiss Latin and Greek, for example, because they are not “relevant” is to imagine that one learns another language in order, as Matthew Arnold put it, “to fight the battles of life with the waiters in foreign hotels.” It is to overlook the literature and history that are opened to the enquiring mind by these languages that changed the world; it is to overlook the discipline imparted by their deep and settled grammar. Ancient languages show us vividly that some matters are intrinsically interesting, and not interesting merely for their immediate use; understanding them the child might come to see just how irrelevant to the life of the mind is the pursuit of “relevance.”

Moreover the pursuit of irrelevant knowledge is, for that very reason, a mental discipline that can be adapted to the new and the unforeseeable. It is precisely the irrelevance of everything they knew that enabled a band of a thousand British civil servants, versed in Latin, Greek, and Ancient History, to govern the entire Indian sub-continent – not perfectly, but in many ways better than it had been governed in recent memory. It is the discipline of attending in depth to matters that were of no immediate use to them that made it possible for these civil servants to address situations that they had never imagined before they encountered them – strange languages, alphabets, religions, customs, and laws. It is no accident that it was a classical scholar – the judge Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1788 – who did the most to rescue Sanskrit literature from oblivion, who introduced the world, the Indian world included, to the Vedas, and who launched his contemporaries on the search for the principles and repertoire of classical Indian music.

All this is of great importance to the teacher who wishes to introduce children to the tradition of Western music, and to the listening culture of the concert hall. Hand-in-hand with the relevance revolution came the idea of the “inclusive” classroom – the classroom in which “no child is left behind,” whether or not adapted to the matter in hand. Music has suffered greatly from this, since it is a subject that can be properly taught only to the musical, and which therefore begins from an act of selection. Furthermore even the musical are subjected outside school to a constant bombardment of music in which banal phrases, assembled over the three standard chords and the relentless four in a bar, have filled the ear with addictive clich├ęs. How, in such circumstances, does a musical education begin?

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