Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Dorothy Sayers and TLTOL (part nine)

Critical thinking skills are lacking in students and graduates throughout the USA, according to many an article on education in the past few years. An article yesterday in the Sacramento Bee stated that the top skill gap employers are finding in job applicants is the area of critical thinking and problem solving.
"American businesses are facing a paradox — high unemployment and the inability to fill key jobs in their organizations," said Mark Schmit, vice president for research at SHRM. "Our research shows that gaps between unemployed American workers' skills and those required for open jobs in the United States are a major reason for this seemingly unlikely contradiction. It follows logically that if key jobs cannot be filled in organizations, then other less critical jobs requiring less skill cannot be created either because the organizations' growth potential is stunted. Thus, the cycle of low or no job growth continues."
HR professionals at organizations having difficulty recruiting also reported gaps in basic knowledge and skills in job applicants. The top four skills gaps were: critical thinking/problem-solving (with 54 percent of those respondents saying that job applicants typically lack that skill); professionalism/work ethic (44 percent); written communication (41 percent); and leadership (39 percent).
The most common gaps in basic knowledge skills were:
  • Writing in English
  • Mathematics
  • Reading comprehension
  • Speaking in English
Despite 13-17+ years of formal education, too many American job-seekers are not learning the material addressed in the dialectic stage of the trivium. Dorothy Sayers would be not be surprised, per this excerpt from her essay where she discusses how modern education largely dispenses with teaching dialectics:

It is, of course, quite true that bits and pieces of the mediaeval tradition still linger, or have been revived, in the ordinary school syllabus of today. Some knowledge of grammar is still required when learning a foreign language--perhaps I should say, "is again required," for during my own lifetime, we passed through a phase when the teaching of declensions and conjugations was considered rather reprehensible, and it was considered better to pick these things up as we went along. School debating societies flourish; essays are written; the necessity for "self- expression" is stressed, and perhaps even over-stressed. But these activities are cultivated more or less in detachment, as belonging to the special subjects in which they are pigeon-holed rather than as forming one coherent scheme of mental training to which all "subjects"stand in a subordinate relation. "Grammar" belongs especially to the "subject" of foreign languages, and essay-writing to the "subject" called "English"; while Dialectic has become almost entirely divorced from the rest of the curriculum, and is frequently practiced unsystematically and out of school hours as a separate exercise, only very loosely related to the main business of learning. Taken by and large, the great difference of emphasis between the two conceptions holds good: modern education concentrates on "teaching subjects," leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one's conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along' mediaeval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.
"Subjects" of some kind there must be, of course. One cannot learn the theory of grammar without learning an actual language, or learn to argue and orate without speaking about something in particular. The debating subjects of the Middle Ages were drawn largely from theology, or from the ethics and history of antiquity. Often, indeed, they became stereotyped, especially towards the end of the period, and the far-fetched and wire-drawn absurdities of Scholastic argument fretted Milton and provide food for merriment even to this day. Whether they were in themselves any more hackneyed and trivial then the usual subjects set nowadays for "essay writing" I should not like to say: we may ourselves grow a little weary of "A Day in My Holidays" and all the rest of it. But most of the merriment is misplaced, because the aim and object of the debating thesis has by now been lost sight of.
A glib speaker in the Brains Trust once entertained his audience (and reduced the late Charles Williams to helpless rageb by asserting that in the Middle Ages it was a matter of faith to know how many archangels could dance on the point of a needle. I need not say, I hope, that it never was a "matter of faith"; it was simply a debating exercise, whose set subject was the nature of angelic substance: were angels material, and if so, did they occupy space? The answer usually adjudged correct is, I believe, that angels are pure intelligences; not material, but limited, so that they may have location in space but not extension. An analogy might be drawn from human thought, which is similarly non-material and similarly limited. Thus, if your thought is concentrated upon one thing--say, the point of a needle--it is located there in the sense that it is not elsewhere; but although it is "there," it occupies no space there, and there is nothing to prevent an infinite number of different people's thoughts being concentrated upon the same needle-point at the same time. The proper subject of the argument is thus seen to be the distinction between location and extension in space; the matter on which the argument is exercised happens to be the nature of angels (although, as we have seen, it might equally well have been something else; the practical lesson to be drawn from the argument is not to use words like "there" in a loose and unscientific way, without specifying whether you mean "located there" or "occupying space there."
Scorn in plenty has been poured out upon the mediaeval passion for hair-splitting; but when we look at the shameless abuse made, in print and on the platform, of controversial expressions with shifting and ambiguous connotations, we may feel it in our hearts to wish that every reader and hearer had been so defensively armored by his education as to be able to cry: "Distinguo."
Oh, how I echo that wish that our young citizens could distinguish the logical fallacies that currently lead some of them to think that disorderly camping in public parks is the way to brighten their future. What they really need, and our public school institution has failed to give them, is solid education in critical thinking and communication skills so they can be hired for the "key jobs" requiring such skills.

I really like Sayers' phrase, "defensively armored by [one's] education". Education should teach us how to discern falsehood from truth and error from correctness. Otherwise, we're destined to be fooled like P. T. Barnum's proverbial "suckers".

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