Twenty-first century skills: Are they just the same old story?

This article was published in a slightly different form in Intrepid News 18 June 2021.

There is something insidious about pushing schools to change so they can prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist, for problem-solving to address threats to productivity, or for new business models with geographically and culturally distributed workforces. There is a strange sense of familiarity in rebuking the traditional education system, saying it won’t allow young people to succeed in the new economy. Beware! If we aren’t careful, we will be lured by these sirens’ songs and find ourselves back in the same mess we thought we were going to leave behind. 

Imagine you had a time machine and were able to travel back England of the year 1820. The Industrial Revolution is drawing a skyline of smokestacks and the country is turning black. Cities are expanding, travel takes a fraction of the time it used to, and workers come in and out of the factory to operate machinery on set time schedules.  You change your clothes and brush up on your Midlands accent to escape notice and, with the same curiosity and desire to understand social and education movements you had in 2021, you conduct a series of interviews with government officials, business owners, and entrepreneurs to find out what they think about this fledgling idea called mass education. Exhausted but energized, you hurry back to your room in the Jewelry District, and poring over your notes, your eyes stop on this tidbit scribbled during an earlier exchange with a commercial eminence:  “New drivers of growth created massive shifts in the skills required to contribute to the economy and the ways in which people work, raising questions about the adequacy of current education systems in keeping pace with these changes.” 

Does this quote seem out of place for 1820?

Could this be a warning that new factory production and organization demand new ways of working with people, new relationships with technology? That we should let go of teaching the outdated skills of tilling soil in favor of those to operate machinery? Could this be a call to create innovative systems of learning to meet the needs of the 19th century, which will eventually take the form of modern schools, where children will be legally obligated to sit with other children their age to acquire the knowledge they need to be productive members of society?

I bet if I said it was someone from 1820 who made this claim, more than a few would believe it.

Now, I realize that’s a bit unfair because those words are taken out of context, but you know what the punchline is already. They’re not from 1820, but from 2020, from the World Economic Forum’s Schools of the Future: Defining New Models of Education for the Fourth Industrial Revolution report. That’s right, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, not the First. 

I won’t pick on this report, which provides quite valuable insights and is a big step in the right direction, if you believe abandoning the content-driven curriculum that supports meritocratic examination systems is the right direction.

Let’s go broader and catch the zeitgeist of progressive education circles, the idea that we need to cultivate 21st century skills, which are often reduced to the 4 C’s in students:, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. It doesn’t matter if you use these four, Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills or some other list of future-ready core competencies, the point I will make is still the same: these “21st century skills”, if developed and used for the purpose of preparing students for the future world of work, will remain transactional and serve the same old system that perpetuates socio-economic injustice, climate emergency, and tensions between communities.

These skills, if not checked, will be put to the service of money, not the planet. It is very strange that these skills are so often labeled as 21st century skills when they have always been valuable, important for fulfillment. When was creativity not useful? Communication wasn’t something that other civilizations needed? People are pushing schools to develop these skills as if they were a panacea. They’re not new, but today more than ever corporate interests require employees to use these skills to solve problems in order to generate more profit. Twenty-first century skills have always been essential, but now we need schools to prepare workers. Just like we did 200 years ago.

Of course, we will always need these skills and there is value in honing them. I am, however, positing that these skills (like any skill) acquire value based on the purpose toward which they are applied, that is, as a function of action. Purpose and intentionality give meaning to skills applied to action. Skills do not exist unless they’re applied (they are just potential energy). If you are a skilled painter but don’t every paint, what is the impact? If I am a great collaborator but stuck on a desert island, what is the point? The action of applying skills is what matters and the purpose toward which we apply them gives the action (and the skills) value.

In fact, creativity is a wonderful thing to develop and exercise, but if it is put to the service of harmful action, it would be best not be creative at all. Whoever came up with credit default swaps was tremendously creative, but feeding the speculative greed that contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 gave a nefarious meaning to the application of the skill. In a more extreme example, Goebbels was one of the most skilled communicators in modern history. Do I need to go further?

In order to avoid misdirecting these skills away from the common good (toward profit, for instance), we need a set of ethics to guide our actions as we apply skills to these actions. This set of ethics is about contributing to the common good. School is the place where we develop and inculcate these ethics. If we apply skills in ways that hurt ourselves, others, and the Earth, these skills acquire a different value.

Skills are not ends in themselves. Will we apply them to have positive impact for the welfare of the bio-collective, or to the world of work and profit?

We should not fool ourselves in thinking we will magically come out of the Industrial Age if we reform schools. Sure, there is a difference in the ways we acquire skills for job success in 2021 compared to 1820. Two hundred years ago, you didn’t need much of a formal education to operate a piece of early machinery, and if one were able to get a job in a factory, that was considered success for those who left their rural homes. Today you need to be a “knowledge worker,” but ultimately, your skills are still put to the use of profit if you’re not careful.

Alienation still happens, discrimination still dominates, elitism is alive and proud. Success in today’s economy has a different set of drivers (at least, success based on the dominant narrative). This system of credentialist elitism only lets you through certain professional doors if you have that golden ticket known as a diploma.

A formal education provides the piece of paper that permits you to reach socio-economic summits, to be a member of the deserving elite whose patrician opinions carry more weight than the less educated plebeian. Perfectly encapsulated by Bill Clinton’s rhyming couplet “the more you learn, the more you earn,” learning is the way to a better meal, which in most cases is served at fine downtown restaurants. More insidious, the narrative suggests that if you are poor, it’s probably because you didn’t spend enough time learning, that is, gaining the skills you need to succeed in the job market. The reason nations are poor is because their populations don’t have the skills needed to compete in the global economy. 

Calls for education reform, like the one from the WEF, are often just about ensuring that we maintain our global competitiveness, not always to improve the welfare of others. Seth Godin said “there are plenty of countries on Earth where there are people who are willing to be obedient and work harder for less money than us. So we cannot out-obedience the competition. Therefore, we have to out-lead and out-solve the other people.”  This isn’t about learning to find personal fulfillment and solve the social and environmental problems of our time. This is about making sure our nation (whichever you belong to) remains the apex predator. 

This mode of thinking assumes that what is good for the GDP (growth) is good for the country,  that our decisions are first and foremost based on what will increase production and consumption. There is little to no consideration of regenerative cultures, thriving societies, or individuals thriving through their interpersonal and interpersonal relationships. The planet and living things receive little more than lip service.

Skills are only potential, which we realize when we apply them in action. Skills determine the quality of our actions, but also give actions meaning when we grapple with the how and the why we use the skills—the intentionality behind them. I may have world class skills to perform surgery, but unless I wield a scalpel once in a while, those skills are for naught and may as well not exist. Even if I perform operations regularly, whether I do so in an exclusive clinic on Harley Street in London or in Uganda as a Doctor Without Borders is a choice that provides different meanings to the application of the same skills in action. Intentionality creates meaning, action exists for itself. Our ethics direct our actions and the skills we possess only exist through these actions, meaning that the skills are not applied neutrally. I’ll go back to my example about what Goebbels achieved with his creative, collaborative, and communication skills. 

You can promote the 21st century skills in schools as much as you’d like, but unless you apply them with specific intentionality and purpose, you risk contributing to the narrative that places profit over socio-economic justice, the planet, or each other. If skills aren’t put to use for the common good—which we refuse to see as GDP growth—then you must ask yourself to what ends are they useful? In which ways do intentions imbue with meaning? What is the purpose, the ultimate end?

It comes down to which story we believe: should school prepare students for the world of work or should it be a place where we focus on ethics, nurture (eco-)citizenship, and strive for the common good? We cannot ignore this question and we should not be sucked into the dominant narrative. 

The conversation around what is the common good is the political and philosophical priority of the Anthropocene. Ignoring this conversation heightens the risk of ecological catastrophe and exacerbates the socio-economic divide, now considered on global, no longer national, level. Rather than seeing the common good as action that enables more consumption, I favor a more Hegelian concept of common good, that focuses our actions to contribute to the welfare of others. If we consider “others” as all living things, then we move from Hegelian humanism to a post-humanist worldview.

Pushing education reform to develop 21st century skills remains dangerously close to using school to meet the needs of the new economy, to be the fuel for profit and economic competitiveness, as it has been for the past 200 years. Different skills, same result. We need to go one step further and ask for what purpose should the skills of collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking be used? How will these skills affect the quality of our actions and should these actions be put to the service of profit or the common good?

We cannot let education reform be highjacked by corporate interests or by meritocratic values that identify success by the size of your paycheck. We must set out intentions based on the common goals so that skills and action have the positive impact to create a more just society and ecologically sustainable world. 

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