Critique on “Virtue Of Irrelevance” By Roger Scruton

Link To Original Article

Sir Roger Scruton is a renowned philosopher, author, and public commentator, widely known for his work in the field of aesthetics and defense of conventional political thinking. His article, “The Virtue of Irrelevance” was published on 10th August 2015, on the website named “The Future Symphony Institute,” which aims to promote discourse on subjects concerning classical music. The article argues about how the drive for relevant knowledge has deemed classical music, a centuries old tradition, irrelevant from modern subjects and current academic curriculum. The target audience of this article is mostly academic scholars and critics holding an interest in subjects such as Renaissance of the orchestra or other subjects of the classical period. Roger adopts quite a dejected tone throughout the text, to firstly show his level of disapproval for the ‘relevance revolution,’ and secondly to show his frustration at not being able to do anything about it. His article is full of rhetorical questions and numerous other literary devices, alongside an adopted jargon appropriate to the target audience. However, his arguments lack structure, evidential support, contain logical fallacies and are mostly one-sided, which makes the readers question his credibility and reduces the overall impact of his ideas.

Roger, by use of rhetorical questions, tries to include and grab the attention of his audience. This is evident at the very start of the article in the question: “HOW MANY WRITERS, EDUCATORS, AND OPINION FORMERS, urgently wishing to convey the thoughts and feelings that inspire them have found themselves confronted with the cry ‘that’s not relevant’?” This question achieves the purpose of inclusion in two ways: firstly, by giving a wordy mention to writers, educators etc. and secondly, by the nature of the question itself which tends to challenge the views of some while conforming to others’. Either way, it allows for the inclusion of both the proponents and opponents of his argument. The inclusive words are deliberately written in Block letters, to make it clear that his question is specifically targeted towards these people. Other examples of rhetorical questions can be found elsewhere in the article such as “What could be more evidently a travesty of nature and the duties of the teacher than the idea that it is children and their interests that set the agenda for the classroom?” All these rhetorical questions serve to engage the readers by keeping their interest in the topic alive.

Besides the use of rhetorical questions, Roger’s choice of words is very appropriate given his scholarly audience. Phrases such as “middlebrow complacency,” and “travesty of nature,” are too complicated for general readers. However, they do make sense to his target audience and help establish his credibility in their eyes by giving out an impression that he knows about his subject and therefore can write with proficiency about it. The language also complements the overall dejected tone of the article, evident in words like “At any rate, to think that relevance, so understood, shows a respect for children that was absent from the old-knowledge-based curriculum is to suffer from a singular deficiency in sympathy.” This sentence, which is very hard for the untrained ear to follow, reflects the author’s tone effectively as well as establishes his authority of knowing his subject to depth. There are also other instances where Roger employs technical jargon to sound professional or boast his expertise in his field such as “knowledge, which is nothing in itself save a residue of the interests of the dead. “

Roger employs a lot of literary devices, to help engage with his audience and to make the language seem more sophisticated. The smile in the phrase “like an agony aunt for an old-fashioned women’s magazine,” adds humor in his argument as aunt agony is well known among educated masses for her wisdom, though the author gives her example in a rather negative connotation. The words “intrinsically interesting” characterize alliteration, which puts emphasis on the word “intrinsically” because the author wants the reader to ponder over her stated argument. Besides, the text is full of examples of Anaphora. For example, the phrase “intrusions of the unusual, the unsanctioned, and the merely meaningful” employs the word “the” thrice and the sentence “It is to overlook the literature and history…. It is to overlook the discipline imparted…” employs the repetitive clause “It is to overlook,”. The author gives out an analogy when he compares the claim that “one learns foreign language” as an equivalent of Mathew Arnold’s claim of fighting “the battles of life with the waiters in foreign hotels.” This analogy helps Scruton counter the stated argument that languages such as Greek and Latin are irrelevant. In the same context of giving out a counter argument, the author uses a paradoxical sentence: “understanding them the child might come to see just how irrelevant to the life of the mind is the pursuit of ‘relevance’.” Roger Scruton, therefore, employs a wide range of literary devices to maximize the effect of his article on his readers.

Scruton’s article has a lot of drawbacks. One of them is that it lacks a proper structure. Though the average length of the paragraphs is short and each paragraph makes sense in its own context, the paragraphs lack coherence. The flow between ideas is missing. The author starts off with the “relevance revolution” in schooling, then talks about the importance of languages such as Greek and Latin and then suddenly jumps on to the topic of his main interest: classical music, and talks a great deal about it. Such haphazard organization of thoughts gives out the impression that he has not given enough thought to his ideas as to put them forward in a structural manner, which would be easy to follow on the part of the reader and easier to write on the part of the author. Roger must have had great difficulty writing this piece of text. A proper structure with the coherence of ideas would have put his main argument of introducing classical music at school and university level in a much more effective way that it currently does.

Apart from lacking a proper structure, the article also lacks evidential support, which is present in only a few places. The author makes hasty generalizations such as the in the claim that “For what we dismiss as ignorance is often the smoothed and adapted outer form of accumulated knowledge.” The author hastily makes this claim without backing it up from credible sources. Likewise, the point “the real objection to relevance is that it is an obstacle to self-discovery” could have been followed by examples aside from personal life because if the author carries a bias in his opinion, it is likely to be carried forward in the example of his own life. Even if Roger kept his own example but gave another example alongside from someone else’s life, it would have sufficed to prove the credibility of his claim. Roger also at one place claims that the relevance revolution brought “into the classroom discussion topics relevant to the interests of the teachers like social justice, gender inequality, and nuclear disarmament,” he, however, does not tell why these subjects are bad. This weakens his argument. The only place in which his argument is somewhat well developed is when he quotes Mathew Arnold to give out a counter argument as to why Greek and Latin should not be dismissed on the grounds of relevance alone.

Roger Scruton, in developing his argument, commits many logical fallacies. First, by claiming that “it was 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 subcontinent,” Roger commits a logical fallacy, specifically called reductive reasoning. He bases the reason for British governing Indian subcontinent entirely on one aspect that is of language alone. Other than that, Roger name calls aunt-agony in one of his claims: “it is Dewey, who disguised his middlebrow complacency behind a mask of wisdom, like an agony aunt for an old-fashioned women’s magazine”. This practice of name calling is very unethical in the professional world and makes the readers question the author’s neutrality and thus credibility when he comments on credible sources.

Furthermore, the text is rather one sided. The counter argument that the author gives is very little, contained in a mere 5 sentence long paragraph and not an important one besides being vague. It lacks evidential support whereas some form of support is given in one or two of his own arguments even though that support was also not enough. Most of the text argues for his own point. Only people who already agree with his viewpoint would still agree with him. Those who disagree with the author will need a good solid reason to change their opinion; and for that to happen, it is imperative that the counter argument is developed fully and negated by proper reasoning.

Despite all the efforts by Scruton to appeal to the emotions of his audience, he seems to have failed at it because in trying to do so he ended up sounding very over-dramatic. In the claim “No matter how hard we scholars emphasize the use of the useless, we will be dismissed in the name of relevance,” the use of pathos is not effectively employed. It rather makes the whole situation very over emotional than needed.

Contrary to the author’s claims where he talks about the modern child wanting curriculums designed upon modern issues like war and peace or gender studies, the author fails to realize that it is a mere formal substitute to the awareness that organizations have been working to extend since the mid-20th century. An example might be gender studies translated as part of awareness campaigns employed by feminist movements. If introducing subjects like gender studies can help us achieve instances of social equality and remove discrimination, then why not introduce such impactful content in modern day education? If the relevance education inculcates tolerance for different genders and different ethnic identities, why is it wrong to introduce topics on discourse in the classroom? If the children of the modern day must live according to the modern-day standards, then must they not be taught subjects which would enhance their standing.

Besides the author’s reasoning for why the British could rule over entire Indian sub-continent, was due to their knowledge of different languages such as Greek and Latin, is a rather narrow one. What the author is missing out on is that superior knowledge was not the only tool used by the British government, it was also the consent of the people of the subcontinent that was involved. More so, these people saw the British as the epitome of superior knowledge and accepted all their decisions, not realizing that the real reason for the establishment of effective government was to loot and exploit the comparatively uninformed population.

To conclude, Roger Scruton is not convincing enough to his audience. The dejected tone of his voice seems to imply that he does not want to change anyone’s opinion. He succumbs to the mere knowledge of the area he feels relevant have been declared irrelevant by modern day standards and will continue to be so as is evident in his claim in the last sentence of the article: “But, whatever else we say about it, this knowledge is not now and never will be relevant”. The entire text incorporates this ideology, which accounts for the missing counter arguments, pathos which is not convincing enough combined with a lack of evidential support. Thought language and figurative language has been effectively employed, the piece of text is a failure in convincing an audience to believe in the author’s viewpoint.


Scruton, Roger. “The Virtue of Irrelevance.” Future Symphony Institute. N.p., 10 Aug. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.

Featured Image Credits: Stock Snap

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