A Case for Irrelevance

July 17, 2019 Updated: July 17, 2019


Where would the world be if Karl Marx had spent his days marching around the streets of London with a sandwich board, demanding the downfall of the bourgeoisie, instead of studying in the British Library?

Political theorist Russell Kirk asked that question more than three decades ago in his book “The Politics of Prudence.” Of course, on the surface, he meant that the world would have been a lot better off since Marx wouldn’t have written the “Communist Manifesto.”

His real lesson, however, was more subtle and meant for young Americans rather than historians: Without hard study and discipline, Marx would never have made a real impact on the world.

The question for our young people is, how will you use your time now, when you’re young? Will you spend your time agitating for things you want now, or will you spend your time preparing for the day when you’re in a position to actually effect meaningful change?

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of high school students taking part in a youth leadership program and my message to them was “Be irrelevant.”

This is counsel that cuts against almost everything we currently teach our young people, and I’m sure giving it will cause me grief. Today, we want our students to be “active,” “engaged,” and “leaders.” We want to create young “social justice warriors,” “community organizers,” and “influencers.” Some schools are actually now giving academic credit for students taking part in marches, sit-ins, protests, and other “consciousness raising” activities.

Actual real-world engagement is good for young people, it’s true. They can learn much from engaging with peers and older activists and leaders. But what they can’t learn from chanting repetitive slogans, or carrying signs, or trying to lead their peers, is much more important in the long-run than what they can learn from it.

Youth is a time when small humans must learn what it is humans must learn. They must read and write and be challenged in their thinking. This is the time when they must accumulate the great stock of knowledge upon which the rest of their lives will be built. This is the time they must observe history and learn from it. This is the time they must read great literature and be inspired by it. This is the time to learn how governments and economies actually work. This is the time they must learn rigor and discipline and standards. Youth, in other words, is a time of preparation more than participation.

Civilization was based on just this understanding. It’s this cycle that produced the great minds, the great leaders, and the great revolutionaries that have driven our progress and saved us from many errors of intemperance and passionate exuberance. Implicitly dedicated to this understanding that youth is a time for preparation, we continue to send our students to school, but everywhere that near-universal, cross-cultural assumption is being undermined.

Increasingly, high schools are encouraging students to spend their time engaged and actively “doing” rather than “just learning.” Colleges now are offering majors in social justice and offering course credits for time spent in activism. Universities are giving excused absences from classwork for students lobbying on their behalf. Our students are barraged by stories celebrating kids organizing rallies, lobbying legislatures, and making media appearances for causes they care about. They wonder what’s wrong with them if they aren’t on TV, making videos for social media, or otherwise seeming to change the world at age 15.

The students I was talking with recently were at a program to study the origins and evolution of the Constitution of the United States. I reminded them that Little Jimmy Madison and Alex Hamilton and Jimmy Wilson and Johnny Jay did not spend their youth with picket signs or organizing rallies but spent their days in the most rigorous education imaginable.

In order for the founding generation even to get into college, they had to know more world history, literature, and philosophy than most Americans with advanced degrees do today—and they read it in Latin and Greek! And after that preparation, they gave birth to a political revolution that ultimately did more good for the world than just about any other secular creation of man.

My message to our young people today is that youth is a time to be irrelevant. It’s a time to sink deep into your education. It’s a time to actually learn things, think about things, and spend time with alternative ideas and great lives of the past. It’s a time to try to figure out how the world works and how it can be better. It’s a time to test what you think you believe so that you can figure out what you actually believe. It’s a time to consider what you want to fight for, and why you want to fight for it.

Only after adequate preparation will you actually be prepared for consequential participation. To do the most for the causes you’ll come to believe in, you must accumulate knowledge and you must test yourself with serious study—including the study of alternative visions and values. None of that can happen by chanting slogans, marching in unison, or attacking people you disagree with on social media. And, lest I be accused of neglecting other distractions in our world of distractions, it can’t be done on a ballfield, playing a video game, watching “The Office” on loop, or just “hanging” with other teens.

My message to our future leaders? Work hard at being irrelevant now so that you might be extraordinarily relevant when your time comes.

Gary L. Gregg holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in leadership at the University of Louisville and is host of the new self-education podcast Vital Remnants.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gary L. Gregg
Gary L. Gregg
Gary L. Gregg is director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville and editor of “Securing Democracy—Why We have an Electoral College.”