21st Century Skills - Are We Missing Something?

The discussion about 21st Century skills is a bit confusing, because they sound a lot like 20th Century skills. 

Consider the talk about collaboration, critical thinking and communication. We have been talking about them for a while. Did we not know the value of critical thinking after the horrors of the Nazi takeover of Europe? Did we not need communication skills in the golden age of advertising? And, in fact, most twentieth century innovations, and one could claim the middle years of the century as some sort of golden age of innovation, came through great collaboration. If we were not talking so much about these then, it was only because our thinking about skills and abilities are always retroactive. The rote memorisation of knowledge, which seems, by common consent, the point of what we now think twentieth century skills really were, had been dead in the water long time since, not just at the point of conception of the Internet. We somewhat forget that the Newspapers and Libraries became ubiquitous in the dying days of the Nineteenth century, and the day we dealt with information changed since then.

It is reasonable to allow a bit of license in coining of terms such as 21st Century skills, as change in human societies do not follow any calendar. However, when such indulgences interfere with our ability to see ahead, we must take caution. This may indeed be the case with this term - 21st Century Skills - as we try to capture in this term what we missed for a few decades at least, catching up on some things that we should have seen but, at the same time, being fixated on the rear view rather than being able to see ahead.

And, this is why our conversations about 21st Century skills are framed in terms of more of the same, and not based on the key challenges and opportunities that are likely to come our way. Our talk of 21st Century skills, at its heart, have a company man with a successful career in business, though this is an increasingly rare phenomenon. The projection of skills are essentially embedded in the idea of how one would live, and the underlying assumption of our skills talk is a consumption-centric life just like in 20th century, even though we know that such aspirations are not sustainable. Even when we are acutely aware of the climatic limits (and know that if everyone lives like an Average North American, we would need five planets), our skills thinking do not factor in frugality, renunciation or self-control. Even when we know that we are living in an increasingly unequal world, it does not include empathy or ideas of sharing. Though we know that we are confronted by an age of smart machines which are likely to take human jobs (or, more precisely, are already taking human jobs), our ideas of skills do not encompass any consideration of value judgements about the technology deployment.

The discussion about 21st Century skills is carried out in seemingly value-neutral, technocratic terms. The conversation is like - we missed this before and we must do it now! But, at the same time, it includes the claim that this is for the future, which is inconsistent with the proposition that the future will not be anything like the past. If anyone really talks about the future and explores what the various projected realities - hyper-urbanisation, globalisation, automation, climactic limitations - we seem to make the assumption that if we catch up on skills requirements now, it would be fine for the century!

The point I am making is that the 21st Century is not an extended version of the nineties and what we label now as 21st Century skills are those we may need right now, but they may be insufficient to effectively negotiate the future. We need more - more sense of history and foreboding, deeper value system and ethical judgements, greater empathy to humans in general, commitment and responsibility towards our planet, a scientific attitude that transcends mere technicalities, a commitment to diversity and openness - and these things never get discussed, or as is fashionable, gets lumped as character, somewhat of a nice-to-have thing. That, indeed, is missing the point.


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