Skills Don’t Matter (Outside Their Context)

Colleges and universities shouldn't care about, or recognize, skills that aren't woven into a program of study that gives them meaning, Johann N. Neem argues.

February 23, 2018
Illustration shows icons representing ability, learning, knowledge, development, skills, teaching, coaching and experience.

Skills do not matter.

Let me say that again. On their own, skills do not matter.

This is worth saying in response to Thursday’s Inside Higher Ed story stating that the American Council on Education will “team up with the digital credential provider Credly to help people put a value on skills they have learned outside college courses.” The initiative, funded by the Lumina Foundation, is, in the words of ACE’s Ted Mitchell, “about creating a new language for the labor market” in which skills-based competencies are valued and credited.

It’s wonderful and important for employers to develop their employees’ skills, but colleges and universities need not take notice, because these efforts are irrelevant to collegiate education’s goals and purposes.

One way to think about why skills do not matter is by analogizing to other kinds of education. Imagine your employer provided you a manual dexterity class where you learned to move your fingers about effectively. Now imagine that you came to a guitar teacher and asked for credit. Certainly, guitar players need to have manual dexterity, but the guitar teacher would wonder why you deserved credit. Learning dexterity absent actually playing guitar is not particularly valuable. It certainly does not mean that one can play guitar, nor that one has understood guitar nor embraced the purpose of studying guitar. It’s a meaningless skill from the perspective of a guitar teacher.

The same can be said of a karate teacher. Imagine that your employer had taught you to kick but had never introduced you to the specifics of karate. Do you have a “karate competency” because karate also requires kicking? Of course not.

Instead, a good karate instructor will point out that kicking abstracted from the context of learning karate is not particularly relevant to the task at hand. It will not teach one how to kick within karate, nor embody the values and discipline that a karate instructor intends to develop in her or his students.

The same is true for college professors committed to ensuring that students graduate with a liberal education. Certainly, being successful in the arts and sciences requires high-level cognitive and academic skills. But those skills are meaningless unless they are learned within and devoted to the purposes of liberal education.

In short, offering college credit for disembodied skills is as much a mistake as a guitar instructor offering credit for manual dexterity.

How, then, should colleges and universities understand skills? For starters, they should always see them in relation to the specific ends of the programs that they offer. This is as true for vocational as for liberal education. The skills of a carpenter or a nurse or a car mechanic are not isolated but are interconnected and oriented to the end of wood construction, providing health care or repairing engines, just as a guitar teacher’s goal is to impart knowledge and techniques in relation to playing the guitar.

For four-year colleges and universities, on the other hand, the skills that matter should be related to their primary mission of offering every undergraduate a liberal education. At such institutions, academic skills should be developed in the context of, for example, reading and writing about literature or history or engaging in scientific inquiry.

A liberal education is not just any kind of education. Like carpentry, nursing or guitar playing, it has content. It seeks to cultivate specific virtues through specific practices. For example, the goal of a historian is not to teach abstract skills (such as parsing evidence or writing papers) but to help students engage in intellectual inquiry about the past. This means that skills are developed within the context of reading and writing history. The end is historical perspective, and the skills are means to that end. From the perspective of a historian, it matters little whether someone has good skills unless they also have learned to value history and to develop historical insight.

In addition, skills, from the perspective of four-year colleges and universities, are meaningless outside studying specific subject matter. If colleges and universities want students to care about and think with the arts and sciences, students need to spend their time studying the arts and sciences.

Indeed, scholars of teaching and learning have made clear that critical thinking skills cannot be abstracted from the material that one studies. As James Lang writes in his book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning (2016), “Knowledge is foundational: we won’t have the structures in place to do deep thinking if we haven’t spent time mastering a body of knowledge related to that thinking.” That is because the ability to ask sophisticated questions and to evaluate potential answers is premised on what one already knows, not just on skills abstracted from context.

Thus, if the goal of four-year college education is liberal education, we need students to study subject matter in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Students need to engage seriously with history and politics, or economics and physics, before they will be able to think critically about history or politics or economics or physics. This takes time. Assessing skills cannot, and certainly should not, be done outside the context of the subjects one ought to study in college.

This is not to deny that employers should invest more resources in developing their employees’ skills, nor to suggest that those skills don’t matter within the context of specific employment markets. There are many reasons to celebrate public and private efforts to develop Americans’ work-force skills, and doing so can benefit both employers and individuals.

It simply matters little to the kinds of things that one should earn college credit for. Employers’ goals are not to graduate liberally educated adults, but to generate human capital. Generating human capital may also be a byproduct of a good liberal education, but it is certainly not the goal of it.

In fact, a good liberal education asks students to put aside, even if just for a while, their pecuniary goals in order to experience the public and personal value of gaining insight into the world by studying the arts and sciences. This is the end, the purpose, the reason for a college education. Whatever other purposes students might bring to their education, and whatever valuable byproducts emerge as a result of their time in college, colleges and universities should remain true to their academic mission.


Johann N. Neem is a professor of history at Western Washington University. He is the author of Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017). The ideas in this essay draw from "What Is College For?" in Colleges at the Crossroads: Taking Sides on Contested Issues (2018).


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