Knowledge Or Skills?

It may seem a strange question, but this is one of the key debates in Education: Should Education be about acquiring knowledge or developing skills? 

One side of the debate are people like E D Hirsch, Michael Gove and advocates of Common Core; on the other a diverse group of business executives and left-leaning educators, from those who think education should be about skills business needs to those who think what goes on as knowledge is really the dominant culture and it discriminates those from poor or minority backgrounds. Yes, I generalise, and there are many shades of argument on both sides. At the core, however, is the debate about the purpose of education along the lines of knowledge versus skills.

It is important to remember in context that this is not an idle debate: The objective of both sides is to affect some sort of complete transformation of the education system. Besides, it will also be a mistake to think that both sides are starting from scratch and fighting it out in the realm of ideas. Rather, it is more like this: Both sides agree on the state of the education system, that it is not working. They also agree that the education processes have changed gradually over the last several decades to give primacy to Skills over acquisition of knowledge. The disagreements really centre around how to fix it: One side argues that too much emphasis of skills is a problem and we are creating disconnected individuals whose skills are fast outdated; the other side argues that we have not gone far enough in focusing on really key skills, and the baggage of mastering knowledge is holding us back.

Surely the arguments as framed reflect the world-views of its proponents. Gaining knowledge as the purpose of education is a traditionalist argument, and those who pursue it often define 'knowledge' as one of national culture and heritage, as in Common Core, Michael Gove's reforms, or the ideas of curriculum change to reflect traditional Indian culture as being debated in India. On the other hand, the skills argument is promoted by the Corporate Globalists, who see the world as an integrated system unified around a single goal of prosperous life and a common value system of efficiency and commercial intent. 

It is easy to see the problem with the focus on acquisition of Knowledge: What knowledge? There is a prescriptive root of this idea - the existence of a canon, a body of knowledge, great books - and it inherently contradicts the current dynamic, contextualised knowledge. As a good politician, Michael Gove stands on the both sides of the argument as he is also the most iconic doubter of the idea of Expertise, which is currently in vogue. In more than one sense, the knowledge argument looks like hankering for a lost time which was perhaps never there, a celebration of an illusory and majoritarian culture, and a project of exclusion of diversity and dissent, which are the wellsprings of innovation and change.

Equally, the Skills argument is flawed, particularly as its proponents push for 'knowledge-free' skills. Their argument that the education process should concern itself with skills development as the acquisition of knowledge is a person, contextual and continuous process, misses the point that skills without knowledge may be meaningless. Can one be a good communicator without having good knowledge of language, cultural contexts or psychologies? Can one think critically without understanding the languages of the concepts? Can one negotiate well without insights of cultures and characters? Besides, the Skills argument is based on an assumption of globalisation apocalypse, that we are moving into - irreversibly - a flat world, something that was definitely negated over the last couple of years.

My point is a predictable one: Not only I think that Knowledge versus Skills is a false dichotomy, I also think the whole debate is misdirected. But, equally, most debates in education today are not really debates about ideas, but entitlements; it is not about being rational, but about taking a position; not about irrefutable arguments, but protection of interests. It is so in this debate too: The positions are taken up to direct public money, and battles are fought between different political positions. Even seemingly congruous concepts such as Knowledge and Skills become battle-cries of different camps, and the balance keeps shifting from one to the other. What one believes in, in this situation, becomes an act of faith, and a function of where the great chain of educational funding the person discovers himself to be.




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