Friday, May 23, 2008

Skills vs. Knowledge

During our final discussion at May College yesterday about our curriculum, several of my colleagues questioned the skills vs. knowledge dichotomy. I appreciate their concern, and very much agree that skills and competencies count as forms of knowledge.

But I do still think that there is an important distinction that can be drawn, that is very relevant to our discussions about what effect we hope that liberal education has on our students.

Developing skills and competencies is very important. As we've discussed, this makes our students better able to do certain things: analyze, synthesize, reason, communicate, etc.

But when I originally raised the question about whether there are other kinds of knowledge we want our students to have by the time they graduate, I was getting at something different that I believe is also very important: Do our students have a good understanding of the world?

We wouldn't necessarily have to specify exact factoids of knowledge that we want everyone to know -- I agree that it would be a nightmare to try to do that (and of dubious value)! But we can approach such a question in a more general, but still meaningful, sort of way. For example, what are the ways that we hope that students can map the world by the time they graduate? We have talked about how we want our students to have global awareness, cultural awareness, environmental awareness, and historical awareness. These are some ways of mapping the world, and they can be analyzed to a finer level of detail as well.

Don't we want our students to have a pretty good understanding of the cultural diversity of the world, its religious diversity, its biological diversity? Don't we want our students to have a pretty good understanding that much of what happens is structured by some combination of natural laws plus the operation of human agency? Don't we want our students to have a pretty good understanding of the best scientific knowledge of patterns of natural processes (laws of nature) and patterns of human behavior and human interaction? Don't we want students to have a good working knowledge of the major social systems that structure our lives: political systems, major world religions, economics, processes of information sharing, the arts? Don't we also want our students to also have a historical perspective on all of the above?

Another metaphor that may be helpful: this is about giving students different lenses with which to examine the world around them -- not specifying exactly what they must look at and how exactly they must see it.

I worry that we are too quick to devalue knowledge just to "information," and too quick to think that in this age of the internet and information overload, the content of what we teach is not important because everyone can just "look it up" when it becomes relevant for them to "know" something in particular.

What I'm trying to describe is a sense of knowledge that is not just facts or information. It is, instead, expanded awareness and enriched perceptiveness. It requires the practice of examining the world through different lenses. It is not just passive absorption, but involves a more subtle kind of skill or competence that involves the ability to get outside of oneself and encounter a greater world that is Other to what one already knows. It requires the development of strategies that enable one to meet this world on its own terms, and then integrate this new awareness responsibly and meaningfully into one's understanding.

We already do teach in ways that foster this kind of ability and this kind of awareness in our students. What I am trying to say here is that we must bring this dimension of education too into our discussions.

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