Towards new definitions of “critical” and “practical” skills?

In the Chronicle of Higher Education this week, Kelly Field’s article “Delivering an Influx of Federal Dollars, Obama Administration Wants Results”—which addresses the debate surrounding increased  federal support of students and college education—sparked a heated thread of comments, the majority of which argue for limited, if any, government control of education. The reason so many people are upset is that federal aid is coming with more strings attached. For example, they are upset over what Field’s calls Obama’s  “accountability agenda”, which threatens to withhold money from programs that fail to set clear goals related to program completion (so not only plans to admit more students to their institution, but plans regarding how they will ensure more students graduate) and work-force preparation. They are also upset at the administration’s attempt to tie federal aid to graduates’ debt levels and employment, which, as Field points out, “is under intense pressure from for-profit colleges to soften the so-called gainful-employment rule”. Some certainly seem to see the administration’s plan as boardroom-driven, or at least economy-driven, alone, as comment 13 argues that “The gainful employment concept neglects the idea that people go to college for an education, not a job”. Yet what I found most interesting in this string of comments was the immediately next one—comment 14—which argues that “Having practical skills doesn’t come at the expense of critical skills”.

I agree with this comment: I don’t see practical and critical skills as mutually exclusive categories. I do think, however, that the current university structure sets them up to be in certain ways…but so what? This is not a new insight, and it’s one that other’s have been making for years. Other’s have likely drawn on Peter Ramus’s ideas on Rhetoric—his pedagogically and indeed pragmatic approach to education, especially in his Arguments in Rhetoric against Quintilian—to drive their discussions of why the university structure can seem, at times, more concerned with practical skills than with critical thinking. They may draw on Ramus’ argument that Quntillian “…does not separate with sufficient sharpness rhetoric’s cause and origins, it nature , its usefulness, it’s art , and its practice” or his argument that we need to think about the “true divisions of art”, to suggest that his focus on division perpetuates the thinking that students are confined by the rules of their particular area of study: that they conform to and work within these rules, rather than critically engaging with and questioning them. As opposed to Quintillian—who seems to blur the line between disciplines by blurring the line between when the study of grammar ends and the study of rhetoric begins—Ramus is fixated on the idea that different skills need to be contained and categorized.

 Yet before we tackle the question over whether or not practical skills come at the cost of critical thinking, I think we need to step back and ask ourselves what, exactly, “critically skills” and “practical skills” are—that is, how do we define these terms today in and of themselves. And have these definitions changed? Furthermore, why is there a distinction to begin with? Or, put another way, why is critical thinking not automatically deemed a practical skill? Perhaps one way to go about answering these questions is to ask yet another one: Are we arriving at a point where our definition of practical skills can be no longer predominantly driven by an emphasis on production (if it has been in the past). Defining practical skills in terms of production alone is certainly dangerous—it can leads to assumptions and beliefs that necessitate hard divisions between disciplines that can potentially discourage critical thinking (i.e. composition instructors focus on and produce good grammar, alone, leaving the “production” of good morals and ethics to happen elsewhere). At the same time, however, I don’t have the answer here. Yes, critical and practical skills are interdependent in my mind, but how do we properly define both? For example, is having a series of in-class exercises or debates in a composition classroom in which students learn to incorporate Rogerian rhetoric a practical skill? I would say yes—but what does this argument mean in terms of the desire to define critical and practical skills as separate, even if they are interdependent, categories? Certainly, others would argue that the in-class exercise is not a practical skill, and it is not likely to be included in any grant application to receive aid from the government.

Field, Kelly, “Delivering an Influx of Federal Dollars, Obama Administration Wants Results”. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 10 Oct. 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2010.  

Ramus, Peter. From Arguments in Rhetoric against Quintillian. The Rhetorical Tradition:Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 289-338.

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