True Skill Demands Deep Knowledge

4 December 2017

This article was published in the Australian Financial Review 4 December 2017

We are presently grappling with some unsettling phenomena. One of these is the rejection of expertise. In the most obvious form of the trend, experts are rejected precisely because they are experts. But even in my field of education, where expertise is valued, the development of substantive expertise is often hindered by well-meaning attempts to promote it.

A prime example is the prioritisation of the acquisition of learning skills over the acquisition of knowledge. Proponents argue that knowledge is so easily available (thanks to the internet) that education should focus instead on the skills to deal with that knowledge. Lists abound of ‘21st century skills’ said to be essential to 21st century life. It is an initially attractive view but it rests on false assumptions about how we think and learn.

The call to build curricula around skill-sets rather than bodies of knowledge (ie subjects) assumes that skills can be taught in the abstract – that we can teach, say, ‘critical thinking’ generically and it can then be applied equally effectively to the study of history, to the development of an orbital engine or to the crafting of public health policy.

But there is much evidence that you can’t teach someone to think in a generic way; they can only think about something specific. Moreover, sophisticated thinking skills can only be applied to a deep body of knowledge held in long-term memory: you have to know a lot of ‘stuff’ really well in order to think at a higher level. We also know that beginners and experts think about problems quite differently. Experts sift out irrelevant material, identify fundamental structures of problems and bring more sophisticated patterns of thought to bear on them.

Despite this, there is a strong trend in education to teach beginners by making them work on problems of the same complexity as those tackled by experts, assuming that in addressing the problems of experts they will somehow acquire the skills of experts.

This is done with the best intentions: eventually students do have to grapple with life in all its complexity. But that used to be the culmination of a sustained program of study, not the first task of the novice.

So in this educational context, the programs being developed by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation are significant – even counter-cultural – because they will present a coherent course of study, with an incremental progression in depth and sophistication, leading to deep and broad knowledge of a particular body of thought.

Many BAs (including my own) are more of a pick’n’mix experience of an eclectic combination of subjects. Such an approach is enjoyable but comes with a compromise: without incremental progression it is difficult to acquire the depth of knowledge essential to develop the most disciplined and flexible mind.
It is worth considering why well-intentioned people who value high learning currently support an approach that undermines the acquisition of real expertise. One reason is the sheer quantum of knowledge to be managed. Curriculum-makers must select streams from a swift-flowing, ever-increasing flood of ‘stuff’. Selecting one thing for attention – Languages? STEM? Classics? Grammar? Asian history? – inevitably excludes another, and the instant you choose any one stream for study, you are two steps away from curriculum warfare. The idea of teaching skills without knowledge must seem a haven to those whose job it is to develop curricula.

But that haven is actually a retreat from the real challenge – of finding a balance between the deep engagement with particular bodies of knowledge needed to learn to develop critical thought, and the pressing need to take an expansive perspective on the world beyond one’s own experience or specialisation.

To study Western civilisation is not to endorse all that has been said and done in Western history or to exclude the study of anything else. But now, more than ever, tackling the big questions for our society requires a robust understanding of the great achievements of Western thinking: scientific method, liberal democracy, the secular state, rule of law, human rights.

In that context, equipping able young people with the best possible understanding of the long and often troubled course of Western civilisation seems to me to be unequivocally good. We will rely on these young people to lead our critique, refine our thinking and – I hope – shape our response to the many challenges ahead.

Ms Elizabeth Stone

The above is an edited extract from a speech given at the launch of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation in November 2017