“Relevance is the only job security that exists in today’s uncertain business world” proclaims the subheading of “4 Ways to Become More Relevant,” Geoffrey James’s 2013 piece for INC.com. The struggle for “relevance” isn’t restricted to anxious employees; it is said to be the burden facing movie stars like John Travolta, ambitious college basketball coaches, authors of children’s books, Baby Boomers, and, if the Trump campaign is to be believed, Mitt Romney.
In the strict dictionary sense of the word, relevance is neither virtue nor vice. That which is relevant could be true and good and beautiful, or it could be false and bad and ugly. Martin Luther King, Jr. was relevant to the American Civil Rights Movement, but so was Birmingham’s Commissioner for Public Safety Bull Connor. To grasp the former’s wisdom and the latter’s brutality, the discussion must extend beyond mere relevance.
In its current wave of usage, relevance talk tries to transcend this vacuity, if only slightly. According to motivational speaker Ross Shafer, for instance, “relevance is taking action to make sure you matter to your customers, your clients, your members, and your teams. If you don’t matter to your constituents, they can go away and not care if you exist.” Malevolent actors can “matter” and in the strictest sense meet Shafer’s criteria, but he obviously means to link relevance to success, popularity, and profit.
Why has relevance become so prominent as a goal and a de facto accomplishment? The uncertainty and instability that pervade contemporary economic and cultural life must play a role. A static environment in which one’s role and identity are firmly established creates little need to seek recurring reassurance of one’s relevance. But today, clearly delineated paths toward security and accomplishment are rare. Most of us don’t know exactly what the future will require of us. All we can do is hope that we are somehow relevant to whatever is happening.
The rise of relevance also speaks to our contemporary need for flexibility. In an age of relevance, to insist on pursuing a passion or a calling irrespective of the vicissitudes of the marketplace smacks of arrogance and naiveté. If you want to stay relevant, you must be willing and able to follow the crowd.
Consider the consequences of this perspective for liberal arts education. A STEM degree, it is said, does far more than an English or art history degree to offer one “relevance” in an uncertain job market. Even those who would defend the humanities use the language of relevance to do so. In Tamara Pace Thomson’s “The Relevance of the Humanities in a Digital World,” for instance, she concludes by stating that the study of the humanities has brought her “the thrill that comes from heightened focus and the self-discovery that comes from intellectual and aesthetic attention. And I can’t think of anything that is more relevant than that.” (Thomson is hardly alone in using this language.)
The pursuit of relevance blurs the boundaries between two forms of success. The first is the sort pursued by someone like the aforementioned John Travolta. A a sixty-two-year-old actor chases relevance in the form of continued visibility and celebrity. Can he still command top billing on a box-office smash? For a student of the humanities at a non-elite college, the relevance being pursued is, at first blush, far more humble: keeping up with the vagaries of the economy and the job market while making a living and acquiring and exercising an appreciation of literature and art. But in both cases, the seeker is chasing a center—of the entertainment industry, of the political scene, of the job market—one that moves quickly, changes rapidly, and constantly threatens to leave the frantic pursuer behind.
Matthew Braswell is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and contributes to the IASC Moral Foundations of Education Project.