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Zainab Sajid


Farhana Shahzad

Writing and Communication

Section 9

23 April 2017

The Virtue of Irrelevance

“The Virtue of Irrelevance” is written by Sir Roger Scruton, an English philosopher and

writer who specializes in aesthetics and political philosophy, popular for his traditional

conservative views. His distinguished works are in the field of aesthetics with two books to his

name including, The Aesthetics of Architecture and The Aesthetics of Music. In addition, Roger

has written many books on assorted topics, namely conservatism, political philosophy and

modern philosophy. He is profoundly enthusiastic about classical music and is a talented amateur

composer. Scruton was knighted in the 2016 Queens Birthday Honours for "services to

philosophy, teaching and public education". The article was written earlier this year in context

with his article “What’s the Point of Education?” written in November 2016. According to

Scruton, for knowledge to become salient, it should be irrelevant in contrast to the “relevant” and

“child-centered” education. In The Virtue of Irrelevance, Scruton presents a logically developed

argument with the use of rhetorical devices and examples supporting his philosophical claim

with a pensive tone to address the students of philosophy and education. However, the stance is
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reflective of his traditional conservative leaning indicating bias with no factual evidence to

discredit counter arguments.

Scruton emphasizes the significance of learning dead languages and classical music, also

referred to as irrelevant knowledge. He argues that it is this irrelevant knowledge that shapes our

minds to maneuver through the unique and the unusual.

Scruton presents a logically developed argument for the value of irrelevance. He begins

with John Dewey’s educational philosophy that children should only acquire by engaging in

realistic tasks and challenges and by living in a community to gain real and guided experiences

to foster their inner capacities (Neill). Dewey is opposed to the Dewey’s “child-centered

education” which Scruton describes as “… curriculum, addressed to the life that is theirs (3).”

Second, he mentions how this “relevance revolution (3)” was adopted by the world and the old

curriculum became an offence to modern children. He then explains that how the irrelevant

knowledge of dead languages is actually a mean of respect for children, 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” (6). Likewise, he describes music as fundamental to the

curriculum. Lastly, he mentions that his objection to relevant knowledge is that it is an obstacle

to self-discovery and he ends on the note that “… knowledge is not now and never was or will be

relevant (12).” Altogether, his ideas are coherent and well transitioned creating a logical sense.

Scruton uses various rhetorical devices to create a persuasive content and to grasp

reader’s imagination and convey the information. Scruton uses alliteration, “intrusions of the

unusual, the unsanctioned, and the merely meaningful (1)”, “agony aunt (2)” and “intrinsically
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interesting (5)” to devise a poetic timbre, rhythm and mood to focus reader’s attention to the

respected sections. Moreover, the author uses rhetorical questions to emphasize the points he

wants the readers to think upon. Like, to point out the reason for the system change is that “child-

centered education (2)” is effortless for teachers but is devastating for children, “What could be

more evidently a travesty of the nature and duties of the teacher than the idea that it is children

and their interests that set the agenda for the classroom (2)?” Scruton wants the readers to

analyze the current situation that teaching old curriculum is harder for the new teachers because

they too have not been taught that way, which is a great loss. “How, in such circumstances, does

a musical education begin (7)?”, here he wants to imply that basic, cliched music lessons instills

nothing in a child and for Scruton, music is a source of enlightenment, which the new

generations are deprived off. Furthermore, Scruton uses epithet such as, “irrelevant knowledge

(6)”, “banal phrases (7)”, “classical repertoire (12)”, “addictive clichés (7)” and many more to

vivid the description. Additionally, Scruton uses appositives such as, “a classical scholar – the

judge Sir William Jones (6)”, “inclusive classroom – the classroom in which no child is left

behind (7)” and “them – strange languages, alphabets, religions, customs, and laws (6)”, which

indicates the elaborate and comprehensive style of the author. The author uses these literary

devices to shape an engaging and compelling piece assuring the readers of his composing


Scruton details his claims using examples. His viewpoint that specializing in different

languages say Latin, Greek, German, French or Spanish, though seem irrelevant but builds one to

compete the unforeseeable, is explained with the example of Sir William Jones. He was a

philologist, a visionary and founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Kamat). He did most to

rescue Sanskrit language and launched a repertoire of classical Indian music. Scruton reasons
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that Sir Jones prowess and dexterity comes from his training in different languages which

enabled him to decipher the Indian world so effortlessly. Likely was the situation with British

foreign servants who owing to their traditional training could influence Indian polity. Scruton

gives another example, which is of himself and how he benefited from being introduced to

classical music, “This practice opened the ears of the choristers at once to the experience of

voice-led harmony. From that it was a small step to lessons in harmony and counterpoint, and

thence to classes in music appreciation (10).” As has been noted, the knowledge that seems

irrelevant while learning assists us in exploring the unknown, tackling the unforeseen and

forming a logic and relevance which is the crucial purpose of the mind. For Scruton, investing

time in the irrelevant is the most relevant act. Such examples identify his claim and him lucid

and rational.

Equally important, Scruton establishes his credibility with the use of contemplative tone.

In fact, well-put thoughts and pensiveness of his tone persuades the reader to accept the

irrelevant knowledge as a virtue, as has been claimed. The subtlety of diction enthralls the reader

to revise their existing believes for child-centered education. It was a performance art, which

brought people together in a uniquely coordinated way, and which was inseparable in its origins

from the habit of improvising around a tune. Music was played, but also listened to, danced to,

sung to, and studied for its intrinsic meaning (8), Scruton creates a cadence while writing about

music, which reflects his command on music and writing. Moreover, his concern for the young

generation echoes in his tone, “But it is a sad day for education when the loss of knowledge is

described, instead, as a gain – when the old curriculum, based on subjects that had proved their

worth over many decades, is replaced by a curriculum based purely on the causes and effects of

the day. At any rate, to think that relevance, so understood, shows a respect for children that was
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absent from the old knowledge-based curriculum is to suffer from a singular deficiency in

sympathy (4).” Scruton successfully evokes the reader’s emotion from this analogy of

deficiency. For several firm reasons, Scruton is able to make the readers question and inquire

into the today’s educational establishments. He uses languages and music as an analogue for

other subjects such as history, geography, mathematics, world politics and so on. He chose to

write referring to languages and music only because of the professional expertise in the

respective areas.

As has been noted, the directed audience of the article are the students of philosophy and

education. Scruton starts his article by mentioning John Dewey [an American psychologist,

philosopher and education reformer] and his educational philosophy, because he expects his

readers to know about them. The author describes how Dewey manifests what Schopenhauer

[known as the theorist of cynicism and pessimism, a worldview that contests the value of

existence] meant by “unscrupulous optimism” (2). To point out, optimism in its ‘wicked’ and

‘unscrupulous’ form shows “the place of pessimism in restoring balance and wisdom to the

conduct of human affairs (Parikh).” Scruton associates Dewey’s theory to such pessimism and

that Dewey is disguising his conscience over what it truly is, only to satisfy himself. The author’s

critique on the relevance revolution is that it does not prepare one to battle the unknown. For new

things to make sense, one needs to have vivid imagination which does not come from the

mainstream education but from the knowledge of the irrelevant, which then, would not seem that


Despite presenting a well-structured case, Scruton viewpoint is indicative of his classical

conservative leaning. He is critical of the social change from traditional to new curriculum.
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Traditional education is the teacher-centered delivery of instructions, in contrast to the non-

traditional education, in which children are actively involved in researching and teaching. He

fails to recognize the importance of technical education in this accelerated world. There is less or

no doubt in the fact that for children to thrive and progress in this ever-growing world, they

should have a concrete base in vocational education. Scruton’s bias would have been dissolved

by stating the essentiality of the relevance than only positioning for the virtue of irrelevance.

Along with the conservative bias, Scruton’s argument lack factual evidence either to

support his claim or to discredit counter arguments. Although, he gives examples to labor his

stance, but there is a lot of generalization involved. “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 (7)”, a concrete statistic indicating the downturn of classical music with the

advancement of child-centered education, would have made the claim more viable. Moreover,

Scruton discredits Dewey’s educational philosophy, due to which, “Whole subjects were

concocted to replace the old curriculum in history, geography, and English: “peace studies,”

“world studies,” “gender studies,” and so on (4).” Scruton should have mention the importance

of these subjects in our academic and daily lives. He could have done this easily with the help of

a basic contrasting survey between the students of the old curriculum and the new curriculum.

Such data would have strengthened the claim. Although, the claim is philosophical in nature,

generalization could have been avoided. “A band of a thousand British civil servants, versed in

Latin, Greek, and Ancient History, to govern the entire Indian sub-continent (6)”, is an example

of such generalization. There were, without an argument, many reasons for such a strong

political mission, but the author fails to acknowledge that. Another argument could have been a
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comparison between curriculum of educational institutes and the success rates of the students,

such a reference would have enhanced the plea.

On the whole, Scruton’s compelling use of literary devices, rhetorical question, examples

with a thoughtful tone to present a skillfully structured argument captivates the reader’s interest

and attention. Despite its shortcomings in terms of factual evidence, the argument persuades the

audience to give in to the view presented by Scruton. Articles of this genre are important in

discussing the curriculums, core and foundation of the education system. Therefore, Roger

Scruton’s “The Virtue of Irrelevance” not only serves as a critique on the educational

establishments but has the potential to mold reader’s critical perspective, which in itself is a form

of art. Scruton’s proficiency in philosophy and writing are imitated in this composition.
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Works Cited

Kamat, Dr K L. "Sir William Jones." Kamat's Potpourri. N.p., 1 Nov. 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.


Neill, James. "John Dewey: Philosophy of Education James Neill Last updated: 26 Jan 2005."

Widerdom. N.p., 26 Jan. 2005. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.


Parikh, Chetan. "Unscrupulous Optimism." Capital Ideas Online. N.p., 13 Dec. 2016. Web. 22

Apr. 2017. <https://capitalideasonline.com/wordpress/unscrupulous-optimism/>.

Scruton, Roger. "The Virtue of Irrelevance." Sir Roger Scruton. Future Symphony Institute, Jan.

2017. Web. 21 Apr. 2017. <http://www.roger-scruton.com/articles/415-the-virtue-of-


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