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Life is not just a set of ‘skills’


WHEN I worked in so-called ‘education’ the repeated misuse of the word ‘skills’ became for me a bête noire, not only because it was replacing notions of knowledge and culture but because it was, and still is, denuding our conception of human life generally of any moral depth – or any other kind of depth.

The central aim of education used to be the transmission of knowledge, culture and tradition, a triad of concepts which are intimately related. The new aim became the transmission of ‘skills’, egged on by political influences from both the Right and the Left. The then education secretary Kenneth Baker’s utilitarian conception of education was purely functionalist, insisting on the production of ‘skills for industry’ or ‘the world of work’. At the same time the new Leftists were insisting that there is no heritage to be transmitted – or, if there is, it is to be derided for being the residue of imperialist, elitist Britain. Consider the following article of multiculturalist faith:

‘Higher education should be concerned more with the development of skills and techniques – whether they be of the scientist, mathematician or historian – than with the acquisition of a defined body of knowledge.’ (‘Continuing Education in a Multi-cultural Society’, a series of resolutions distributed in the City of Manchester College of Higher Education, November 1981).

How deluded we had been all those years in believing that there are some things that scientists, mathematicians or historians need to know! The trouble with the traditional conception of education of course is that students might end up with knowledge, and thus might be able to direct and shape their own lives – a prospect too risky if education is either a matter of catering to the exigencies of market forces or a tool for furthering the cause of socialist engineering.

But the concept of a skill is here being misconceived. Even the oracles of academe, the inspectors of HMI, clearly didn’t understand it in their 1985 pamphlet The Curriculum from 5 to 16. There, a skill is defined as ‘the capacity or competence to perform a task’, a definition which succeeds only at the cost of being utterly trivial. Their misapprehension shows itself in their list of objectives under the heading ‘Personal and Social Skills’.  As follows:

         to adapt to different social contexts 

         to consider others’ views

         to accept responsibility 

None of those alleged ‘tasks’ can be understood simply as matters of competence. The exercise of such capacities – even the willingness to exercise them – requires sensitive, imaginative and moral insights. To ignore this is to have a purely mechanistic view of human action and human relationships.  

In so many of the so-called ‘life skills’ and ‘social skills’ courses which began to swell the curricula of schools and colleges, the dominant perception of human nature is one which construes our social interaction as just a matter of techniques. The City & Guilds ‘communication skills’ syllabus (1985) stated as a general aim that the student should ‘be able to choose from a range of alternative communication strategies’(emphasis mine). This insidious word ‘strategies’, so frequently repeated parrot-fashion by those who also prostrate themselves before the pseudo-scientific idols of ‘assertion skills’, ‘eye-contact skills’ and ‘role play’, suggests that the other person is a pawn to be manipulated within the hedonistic life-game of wants and satisfactions. Any previous hope for education to make people wise has been replaced by the sole aim of making them streetwise.

Even the most mundane capacities, such as punctuality or catching a bus, were now being construed as skills. Something called ‘study skills’ turned out to be on the level of the following: being equipped with a pen and sharpened pencil, learning to listen to the teacher (‘listening skills’), looking at the blackboard or ‘sitting in a sensible posture’.

We honour Einstein not for his skill, but for his vision: a vision which would not have been possible without a firm grip on the very traditions of thought he challenged. The same can be said mutatis mutandis of Mozart, Wittgenstein or Picasso. Although obviously not without skill (but remember a writer, musician or artist who has only skill has nothing to say) the genius of these men sprang from the soil of their cultural inheritance.

As T S Eliot put it in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, tradition requires relinquishing one’s vanity. It must be worked for, submitted to, and requires self-sacrifice – the loss of the ego to something more valuable.

The (good) poet, for instance, does not merely exercise skill, does not just pour out his personality, and does not regard poetry as a collection of isolated products. If he has what Eliot calls ‘the historical sense’ he regards poetry as ‘the living whole of all the poetry that has been written’.

This organic sense of art confers a responsibility upon the artist and informs our perception of his achievement. ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation, is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.’

I am not saying that there is no proper conception of skill, or skills, or that they should not or cannot be taught. Nor is it simply a verbal quibble. The misuse risks changing the way we regard human beings and human life, and therefore the way we treat people.

My point is that what I call ‘skillsology’, which reduces all our capacities to so-called skills, is an assault on our humanity. And it is now to be found in bureaucratic management-speak. It was appalling to find a few years ago the Richmond upon ThamesPrimary School Guidelines describing even ‘a sense of wonder’ as a skill – as if it is on all fours with serving an ace at tennis! It is not a knack. A sense of wonder, which is so much more than curiosity, and is in a different category from anything that can be called a skill, is surely one of the deepest spiritual qualities any human being can have.

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Frank Palmer
Frank Palmer
Dr Frank Palmer is a philosopher and author. He was taught by Roger Scruton who was his PhD supervisor and during the 1980s was part of a thinktank of academics Roger formed to fight damaging trends in education. Frank’s last book was Literature and Moral Understanding (Oxford University Press).

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