Freddie DeBoer sets up a false dichotomy between learning specific skills vs. learning “how to think”:
Individuals can navigate the markets, if they’re smart, privileged, and lucky. But great masses of people never can. If you’re telling me that you know what every freshman should start studying in 2014 so that s/he can get a good job in 2019, I think you’re full of it.
Instead, we should return to the point of what education has always been about: to teach students skills, yes, but only as part of a larger, more important goal of teaching them soft skills, meta-skills, and habits of mind that enable them to adapt to an endlessly-changing labor market. If you teach a kid how to use a particular kind of database or programming language, you might get them employed for five years, maybe ten. But if you teach them how to think, how to acquire skills themselves, how to be critical interpreters of information, and how to exist as compassionate and ethical members of a democratic society, you may empower them to keep themselves employed for 40 years. We could stop mistaking education as the process of one person giving information to others and rediscover education as a process of mentoring and apprenticeship where teachers work closely with students to develop not just specific skills but a mind that’s capable of acquiring more skills, and of understanding how and why skills become valued in the first place, and of forming moral choices about how these decisions drive society.
Now it’s true that no one can predict the job market even a few years out. But that doesn’t mean you downplay the necessity of acquiring specific skills or put them in competition with “habits of mind.” Oftentimes the best way to acquire these habits is to first develop a limited and particular skill-set. Consider the database example Freddie raised. I haven’t taken a single class on database design principles. But I’m now familiar with them after working in one database environment (MS SQL Server) over the past 2.5 years. I’ve been able to derive the general from the particular. My knowledge of SQL Server also helps me immensely when I have to navigate MySQL. The same goes with programming. Sure languages change all the time. But it’s much easier to adapt if you’re already familiar with several programming languages. I had never used MATLAB when I started my Ph.D.* I picked it up quickly because I had previous experience in C, C++, Fortran and Perl.
I guess you can call me a skeptic on critical thinking / habits of mind / learning how to learn. They’re very fuzzy concepts. If the academic debates on teaching “how to think” is anything similar to those in public science literacy, then I’m certain that there’s no widely agreed upon definition. I would gently challenge Freddie to list what exactly he wants to students to learn, and how he would asses whether they’ve learned it.
What does this have to do with creationists? Well I can’t count the number of times people I know are publicly bashed for lacking critical thinking skills or not knowing how to think. And yet they possess eminently useful, employable skills. Who cares how people think if they can navigate the job market and serve as productive members of society? In this topic at least I see too little weight given to skills and too much given to notions like “critical thinking” and “habits of mind.”
Rather than harp on difficult-to-define terms, we should recognize that everything is a skill. There are just different types of skills. Some are particular (a given programming language or database standard), some are more general (writing coherently, interpreting graphical data, project management) and some are soft (communication, leadership). But even general and soft skills are undergrid by smaller, more discrete skills that that can be taught, however imperfectly.
Take the soft skill of “reading a customer.” Some customers need a more hands-off approach while others need to be hand-held. Some want all the technical details and some will be annoyed at the word server. These are amorphous judgments for sure. To a certain degree you only learn to make them with practice. But there are still ways to gauge the situation: who was invited to the meeting, the initial questions asked, the information from the pre-sales and sales team, and so on. Even a soft skill like this can be decomposed into a set of particulars. And people do so all the time.
None of this is meant to oppose a liberal arts education. But I think Freddie places too much faith in abstract concepts while undervaluing the intrinsic reasons for subjects like literature and philosophy. They are indeed beautiful. They are an indelible part of the human experience. But those types of classes don’t teach you C++ or accounting. As unpredictable as job markets are, we still have no choice but to try teach concrete skills. If we don’t, only the smart, privileged and lucky students will make it. The great masses will not.
*Yes I know MATLAB is technically a scripting rather than programming language. Sue me.