Skills, Competencies and Literacies, Oh My

One of the themes that’s come up in strategic planning here is the question of the teaching of skills, competencies, literacies (and related concepts) in our curriculum. I’ve initially been a bit taken aback at the strong discomfort some of my colleagues have expressed about an explicit attention to these themes.

However, I understand the larger reasoning that leads to their unease. The language of “skill” or “competency” lends itself all too easily to highly instrumental, pre-professional or managerial approaches to higher education, and the trend towards those approaches in many universities is accelerating. The humanities suffer especially acutely in that kind of move, but any kind of inquiry or teaching that tries to retain the spirit of the liberal arts struggles to hold position.

The reason to study history, literature, philosophy, theology, art history, dance or any other humanistic field is not to develop instrumental skills for their own sake. No less the study of chemistry, engineering, economics or linguistics. On the other hand, I do not think those subjects justify themselves entirely on their own: they are for something more. You study history to understand why the world is the way it is, to consider the varieties and possibilities of human life, to contemplate and not easily resolve the meaning of events and patterns, to try to inhabit past structures and modes of feeling. What comes of that? At a minimum, I’d hope for some kind of wisdom. And I’d equally hope that wisdom would lead to wariness about quick or glib attempts to apply that study to acting in the world. (A sentiment I shared some years ago with a graduating class at Swarthmore.)

However, I really can’t see why that deep purpose is any sense incompatible with becoming a progressively more skilled, competent person in the practical tasks that confront us in our professional and personal lives. All of the abstract, somewhat pretty description I’ve offered so far is typically glossed as “critical thinking”. Critical thinking should make you a comprehensively more capable person: a better writer, a better speaker, more able to read, more able to interpret the thoughts and actions of others and to anticipate social trends and structures, more capable of designing research and collecting data, and so on.

If you assess or grade a student in a course in a liberal arts course, you are forced to judge whether that student is doing the work of interpretation or critical thinking well or poorly, and whether they are improving in how they do that work. Skills or competencies are somewhere in there. I completely buy that they shouldn’t be viewed as detachable from the deeper, richer purposes of critical thinking, but I’m equally concerned about the opposite descriptive error. There’s no reason to describe the work of interpretation as having no practical use, as being necessarily antagonistic to instrumental purposes.

The study of literature can (indeed, ought to) inform the work of producing literature or other culture, most immediately. But it can have practical, concrete, generative effects on any human work, whether it’s being a mid-level bureaucrat at the World Bank, being a plumber, or working as a surgeon. And some of those improvements or cultivations can be connected to more granular skills: reading, writing, speaking, presenting, emotional understanding.

What I worry about when I hear this pushback against talk of skills, literacies and competencies is that it is easy for that to slide into a belief that liberal arts inquiry is distinguished by its comprehensive resistance to or rejection of the language of practicality, applicability or usage. Or that such talk, if not rejected, should be swallowed up in a fog of opacity and evasion, dissolved by irreducible complexities.

It is one thing for a hermit perched atop a mountaintop to insist that his knowledge is necessarily esoteric, that it can only be explored through shared ascetic experiences and never communicated as transmissible product. It’s another thing for a civic institution that imposes considerable collective costs on its supporting society to insist on the same thing: that education is so sublime and ineffable that it should only be lived, never narrated or applied. I think there’s a coherent position about inquiry or contemplation along those lines, but not when it’s coupled to the modern university or to the claims of contemporary academics to shared forms of expertise and authority that arise from a common base of technical and disciplinary training.

If a parent asks me, “What will my child get from studying with you and your colleagues for a price tag that will buy me a house in some real estate markets” and my answer is solely, “They will understand the mysteries of the world a bit more deeply” or “They will be a better person”, those are legitimately repellent or unworthy answers for a great many people. (And we shouldn’t be particularly pleased with the parents who will be satisfied with the idea that we’re making a future elite a bit more cultivated and dignified.) I can’t understand why we would ever insist on those as solitary or exclusive answers. I would say instead, “They will be better at almost any job they choose to do and any life they choose to lead, in ways that I can describe quite concretely, and part of being better is that they will understand the mysteries of the world more deeply and will have begun to explore the art of being human within those mysteries more fully, in a more sustained way, than they would have if they had not gone to college”.

This entry was posted in Academia, Swarthmore. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Skills, Competencies and Literacies, Oh My

  1. NickS says:

    Personally I’d go farther than you and say that not only is a discussion about the “skills, competencies, literacies (and related concepts)” being fostered a reasonable thing to include in strategic planning, it’s actually valuable.

    I haven’t thought about this for a while, but one of the highlights of my undergraduate experience was being involved on the faculty committee which was involved in re-writing the general education requirements, and which ended up changing them so that they were no longer based around disciplinary categories, but rather around skill areas, and I think this was a positive change.

    Part of what came up in that conversation was the idea that if you’re going to talk about teaching you have to acknowledge that there’s a best case scenario in which the student achieves everything the institution would hope for, and a worst case scenario in which the student does only that which they’re forced to do. For obvious reasons this was particularly relevant to a discussion of the General Education requirements, but I think it’s generally true.

    I think of the language of “skills, competencies, literacies (and related concepts)” as part of that worst case/nuts and bolts perspective. You don’t want the goals of classroom teaching reduced to a bare minimum of measurable outcomes but, at the same time, there should be measurable outcomes (or, at least, skills that could be measured were you so inclined).

    It seems worth it to, at some point, have a conversation between different instructors and different disciplines about what it is, at a very basic level, that a student will be exposed to if they study in that discipline, and the degree to which those skills are shared across disciplines or unique.

  2. Neb Namwen says:

    As a big fan of mystery traditions (if done right), I feel that seeing more deeply into the mysteries ought to make one not just “better” but more competent, more effective.

    A mystery is just knowledge that only works for you if you get it in your head in the right way, so the line between esoteric and exoteric knowledge can be really fuzzy. There was a time when the idea of someone sitting quietly gazing at a piece of stained parchment and coming away knowing something they didn’t know before was considered pretty freaky, now it’s the very standard of non-mystery.

    I think the key (corresponding) mystery of the present moment is digital literacy. While you can write a book on how to find what you’re looking for (and judge what you’ve found) on the web or in a large database, the course of study pretty well has to be hands-on — you learn how to use Google well by doing it, or not at all, even if the doing can be guided by information which is transmitted explicitly.

    You mentioned a hermit, and I thought of the Hermit of the tarot deck, who carries a lantern — just like the initiates of the honest-to-goddess mystery tradition just up the road. They are, like all lanterns, for seeing clearly, and one important reason to see clearly (especially under the patronage of Athena, who has always been about getting things done) is in order to act effectively. The mystery that doesn’t lead to competence is not the true mystery.

Comments are closed.