Too Much Talk about Skills and Very Little Talk About Virtues
I recently realized how uncommon it is to talk about virtues in education and work settings. Skills, not virtues, seem to be quite the protagonist. In my own life, skills are what I have in mind when I am designing the learning objectives of the courses that I teach, and virtues rarely make it into the syllabus. Skills, not virtues, are what I am expected to discuss when writing my self-evaluation as a doctoral student. Skill-development, not virtue, is why my employers have ever paid me. I wonder what the world would look like if, at school and at the workplace, we spoke more, or at least the same amount, about virtues as we do about skills.
Let me tell you how I came to think about virtues and contrast them to skills. I am currently researching how senior managers deal with misalignment of values as their work changes. In my conversations with participants in the study, I noticed that they talked much about skills. Creating better alignment among workers within new work requirements seemed to demand better influencing, commercial, and leadership skills. It’s natural, I thought, that if managers need to adapt to new and changing demands in their work, they have to work on their skills. But I then came across the work of Alasdair MacIntyre. His discussion of virtues made me question the pervasiveness of a skilled-focus narrative among the participants in the study as well as in my roles as a student, a teacher, and an employee.
The abundance of explicit skill-talk and the absence of explicit virtue-talk is not just something that my interviewees and I happen to share. In education, skills are more than a buzz word. At a policy level, it is commonly argued that the right skill-set in a country translates into a stronger economy. Reputable educational initiatives such as the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, OECD’s PISA, and ministries of education across the globe explicitly mention skills time and again. The hype around skills also continues at the workplace. The last time I checked, Harvard Business Review had already published eight digital articles with the word ‘skill’ in the title during 2015, and not one with the word virtue since 2013. Managers strategize how to improve the skills of their staff and evaluate their own skills in their annual development plan. Updating and renewing one’s skills has become a life-long necessity, and employers invest millions trying to improve the skill set of their workforces.
But what is the relationship between skills and virtues? A genuine virtue, according to MacIntyre’s definition, should meet three conditions: 1) it allows us to achieve excellence in the practices in which we engage; 2) it contributes to our quest for a life worth living; and 3) it contributes to the quest for the best in society. These conditions mirror the three Es of Good Work: excellence, engagement, and ethics. The problem with a focus only on skills is that emphasis is placed on excellence alone, and engagement and ethics are often overlooked. A skilled pianist, a skilled chess player, and a skilled software developer can all achieve excellence in their practices. Yet being an excellent pianist, a chess champion, or creating an innovative app does not necessarily mean that these people will find their work to be meaningful or that they are ethical in their practice of that work. So there is only so far a skill can take you.
It’s not that virtuous behaviors receive no attention. Leadership and management articles are saturated with arguments as to why it is no longer enough that doctors are good in the operating room, civil engineers know how to design structures, or managers are able to improve efficiency. These professionals also need to be good with people. The same publications also offer advice and strategies on empathizing with colleagues, being more open-minded, or becoming a better communicator. But instead of speaking of ethics or virtues, these abilities are referred to as “people skills” or “soft skills” that make for more cozy working environments, better negotiators and sales-people, and bigger bottom lines. When virtues gain relevance only for their instrumentality towards a limited definition of excellence, and when one is otherwise selfish and uninterested in the common good, they are not virtues any longer. These quasi-virtues become nothing more than tools to close deals, enhance productivity, and bring about higher performance reviews. It suffices to walk down the business aisle of a bookstore to find that title after title of the books on the shelves offer advice on how to influence, negotiate, network, and manage through soft skills. Some of these flashy and well-designed book jackets may even teach the art of manipulation under the banner of “people skills” and sugar coat it with promises of performance, happiness, fulfillment, and success. With these ideas to guide us, the successful student remains the one who just gets good grades and a successful professional the one with good performance reviews.
The focus on skills has distracted us from talking about the higher notion of virtue. When they are remembered at all, virtues are referred to as old-fashioned, and those who engage with the topic of virtues feel compelled to make a case as to why they continue to swim against the stream (see Howard Gardner’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed). While skills remain crucial to achieving excellence, only virtues can lead to socially responsible and meaningful acts. By not recognising virtues as central to education and human development, the possibility of doing Good Work suffers. Neil Postman questions what the end of education is, and David Perkins invites us to reflect on what is worth learning. The end of education should be to develop virtuous citizens, and the practice of virtues is something worth learning.
Let’s stop shying away from the virtue-talk and make it the center of our educational curricula and workplaces. Virtues, like skills, allow us to achieve excellence in the practices in which we engage. But unlike most undirected skills, virtues contribute to the life worth living and the quest for the best for society.
Framework for 21st Century Learning – P21. (n.d.). [Web page]. Retrieved from www.p21.org: http://www.p21.org/about-us/p21-framework. Accessed 09/03/2015.
MacIntyre, A. (2013). After virtue: A study in moral theory. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Perkins, D. (2014). Future wise : Educating our children for a changing world. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
Postman, N. (1996). The end of education : Redefining the value of school. New York: Vintage. Retrieved from Amazon.