Among a host of other things, I’ve had “relevance” on my mind this week. As a student of the so-called “dead languages,” I have gotten fairly accustomed to facing the question (from myself as often as from others), “Remind me why you’re studying that again?” The more often I ask myself this question, however, the better and more nuanced my answers become.
But what is it that we mean when we talk about the need to be relevant, anyway? The dictionary tells us that something is relevant when it has “significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.” Depending on what “the matter at hand” is, of course, that really sounds like it could be quite a tall order! “Significant and demonstrable”—those are two criteria that are not very easily quantified.
Sometimes, however, I think we make the question of relevance harder on ourselves than it need be. Often, when we use the term “relevant,” what we really mean is one of two things: either “popular” or “practical.” This week, I’ll spend a few moments discussing why I think we should avoid confusing relevance with popularity, and next week I’ll talk about why I think we need to broaden our understanding of what is of practical relevance.
So why is it that we are so quick to judge as irrelevant those pursuits that are less popular than others? Why is it that artists regularly feel the need to defend the relevance of what they love, while sports fans hardly ever do? Why are we so quick to assume that “old” books and stories (think the Bible, Shakespeare, the Constitution, the list could go on and on) must have less relevance for our day-to-day lives than the self-help books and memoirs that line our best-seller shelves?
These questions could probably be answered in a variety of ways, but the point I want to make here is just how easy it is to fall into the trap of assuming something is less relevant to the needs of today’s world simply because it falls rather low on the popularity scale. Might it not make more sense to think about things the other way around? Is it not at least possible that the very fact of something’s being unpopular might actually suggest that there is a greater need for it than otherwise?
Think of it this way. Suppose the task of an artist or a historian or a philologist is to help others recall or become acquainted with those things of beauty and significance that most have never heard of or cared about. If the majority of our culture has forgotten a truth of immense value or has never encountered an image of life-changing beauty, would it not be the most relevant task in the world—a vocation with the most significant bearing on the status quo—to spend all one’s energy helping others discover (or rediscover) those objects truly worthy of pursuit?
Let’s not fall into the trap of calling something irrelevant just because few people find it interesting at the moment. I believe pursuits of true relevance will always show their face eventually to those who seek them.