Is Thinking a “Skill”? Values and Problems in Thinking About the “Liberal Arts”

In today’s online version of the Chronicle of Higher Education, four views regarding the “future of the liberal arts” are presented. While not intending to pick on Martha Nussbaum’s “The Liberal Arts Are Not Elitist” — for in spirit we share a common concern — the piece does nonetheless represent some perennial problems in how public discourse conceptualizes education. As an illustration of these problems I examine some of the assumptions and features of the essay.

Nussbaum begins by warning of a crisis in education, a crisis rooted in the quest for national profit or economic gain (interestingly enough this point is made without reference to the dramatic increase in the rise of for-profit providers of higher education and the concomitant adoption of an outlook predicated on education being a service and students consumers). She writes:

Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations and their systems of education are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, all over the world we will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.

What is most interesting about this line of argument is its assumption that “citizens who can think for themselves” (what about resident “aliens”?), the “ability” to “criticize tradition” and “understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements”, are all skills. Is thinking a skill? Is empathy a skill?

Examining the Oxford English Dictionary, one will find that the noun skill has two distinct meanings, and I think the difference is quite significant. The first meaning listed is essentially grounded in the notion of reason, or discernment and differentiation (and given as a mental faculty of individuals, whereas now there is evidence that thinking is a social, not simply psychological, phenomenon). The second meaning moves us into the moral realm: “That which is reasonable, proper, right, or just.”

The “business community’s” emphasis on education for the development of skills suggests, at first glance, a set of functional capacities (e.g., STEM) tightly aligned with what finance capital says the market can bear and national security deems worthy (e.g., learning Arabic). Yet, it is clear to me that since the days of the development of civil service exams in China and then in the west, a composite notion of skill has pervaded our thinking, both causing confusion and covering over important developments. This confusion reigns in Nussbaum’s essay and is worth further exploration.

She writes: “Indeed, what we might call the humanistic aspects of science and social science—the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought—are also losing ground.”

While the word rigorous is almost as hackneyed and misused as the word accountability (rigorous is of course derived from the notion of being inflexible, as when one dies their body becomes rigid, something I hope most can recognize as not being synonymous with notions like “advanced”), what is particularly troubling is the incessant habit of placing adjectives before words in such a manner as to reveal that the writer does not understand them. So an example is “critical thinking.” I’m just not convinced that thinking is a phenomenon that comes in varieties, such that one type of thinking is “critical” and another type is “uncritical”. I’m serious; if we don’t stop this irrationalism, we’re going to soon be offering undergraduates “uncritical thinking” as a prerequisite for courses in “critical thinking”. This reminds me of proponents of “brain-based learning,” as if we were confused as to the organ largely responsible for learning! I’m going to develop the Institute for Foot-based Learning, following in the footsteps (!) of the peripatetic philosophers of ancient Athens.

So back to the problems of skills-as-values. Anyway, what is significant about the designation of some thinking as critical is that it appears to cross over into a moral or values positions (critical means to render negative judgment), beyond any empirically based analysis of forms or types of thinking. That is to say, the kind of thinking that “critical thinking” targets is thinking that is judgmental, opinionated, and so on, and thus, the notion confuses the value and the form of the process and product of thinking. Nussbaum continues:

Given that economic growth is so eagerly sought by all nations, especially at this time of crisis, too few questions have been posed about the direction of education, and, with it, of the world’s democratic societies. With the rush to profitability in the global market, values precious for the future of democracy are in danger of getting lost.

So here we have an assumed linkage of the above mentioned skills to a set of values, which I don’t think is an accident nor a problem unique to this author’s point of view. She continues in the following paragraph thusly:

The profit motive suggests to many concerned leaders that science and technology are of crucial importance for the future health of their nations. We should have no objection to good scientific and technical education. My concern is that other abilities, equally crucial, are at risk of getting lost in the competitive flurry, abilities crucial to the health of any democracy internally, and to the creation of a world culture capable of tackling the world’s most pressing problems.

Wait! I though we were talking about the skills associated with a liberal-arts education, skills that help foster democratic governance? Yes, ability is commonly referenced by thesauruses as a synonym for skill, but is it? Ability, according the OED, is particularly focused on the notion of suitability relative to a particular purpose, or as the quality making some action possible. So, let me pull what I think is a very important observation from my book:

Sociologists point out that there have always been arrangements for formally recognizing the capacity to perform important social roles and to exercise their associated social status and power… Notice that there are in fact two capacities referenced here. The first is the capacity to perform the role itself (functional competency), and the second capacity is to exercise the role’s associated social status and power (what might be called social competency). Notions of ability, of capacity, are bound up with social roles, for ability must have a place for it to be manifest. This quality or state of being able manifests itself in the “physical, mental, or legal power to perform,” according to Webster’s. Note that ability can signify a power inhering in persons—again functional capacity—or a legal power to do something, or social capacity. It is significant, I think, that the etymology of ability is from the Middle English, suitability. In this regard, standardized test-based assessment is the judgment of worth relative to a structural slot or social position—what is deemed of value and who is deemed of value—a process abstracted as achievement or ability.

It is this dual meaning of skill and ability that must be sorted out. In the same breath, we talk about functional capacities and social capacities. In the present circumstance this leads to, among other things, blaming average individuals for what are in reality structural problems, which are covered over by those relatively few individuals who benefit from these structural arrangements.

And of course, educational institutions have been implicated in this social structuring, and the interesting fact is that “liberal arts” education was reserved for those slotted for positions afforded “social status and power”; as access to education was broadened, and the right to vote extended, more limited forms of liberal education were afforded the “masses.” “Liberal education” was the vision so graciously extended to the “masses” by enlightened bourgeois reformers and while progressive in its day and responsible for many positive developments, it imposed the limits of a bourgeois outlook (e.g., “learning is for its own sake”). It cannot move us into the future. It confounded our understanding of skills, abilities and values, and brought with it the view that education was an appropriate means for defending the ranking of humanity, thus not only distorting our understanding of the origin of extant social inequality, but also distorting the process and outcome of education by tightly aligning its acquisition with social rank.

It is thus my (admittedly underdeveloped) thesis that the current emphasis on “skills” is in fact an assignment of lower social value to a larger section of the population than has been practiced in the recent past; the problem is not that the “skills” necessary for democracy are not being “taught”, but rather that what little democracy existed prior to the current push for “accountability” is being eliminated by the reduction of education to “skills development” under the hoax of economic development.

The political arrangement that housed “liberal arts” as an educational form no longer holds sway. Put in a different manner, the aim of the emphasis on skills is not — at the macro level — in the main economically driven, but a political necessity given the extreme concentration of power and complete failure of the current political system to provide people even a modicum of say over their government and the direction of society. In vogue notions of skills are confused with notions of values, and are thus quite complex. The notion of “critical thinking” is not a banner behind which educators should readily line up in the dire hope that by adopting the business-talk of skills somehow a broad and enlightened form of education can be defended and supported.