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What Do We Mean by “Skills?”

There is much discussion these days, especially in liberal arts institutions, about what kind of knowledge should be the focus of undergraduate and graduate education.

In many of these discussions, the word “skills” arises. Its use is causing some misunderstandings. Some of us devoted to liberal education hold to notions that the traditional liberal arts are knowledge domains resulting from “disinterested inquiry” in contrast to those devoted to a given profession or vocation. Indeed, “skills” often is used to describe the knowledge required for activities within a job. From this, there is a common reactance to the notion that an undergraduate degree from a liberal arts institution should explicitly not be occupationally targeted, that job skills are not the obligation of such an undergraduate curriculum.

If one looks for formal definitions of a skill, you find: “An ability and capacity acquired through deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to smoothly and adaptively carryout complex activities or job functions involving ideas (cognitive skills), things (technical skills), and/or people (interpersonal skills). (This from This indeed sounds rather task-oriented.

But further definitional commentary dissects skills into hard skills, labor skills, life skills, people skills, social skills, and soft skills. These expand the notion of skills far beyond narrow task-oriented knowledge suitable for a given job. Some of these subcategories of skills fit the kind of capacities that those in liberal education have espoused for some time: creativity, resiliency, critical thinking, decision-making under uncertainty, leadership, dealing with conflict, empathy, taking the “other’s” perspective, inter-cultural competence, reflection, and discernment.

Surveys of employers and business executives repeatedly find that they highly value attributes like strong work habits, self-discipline, computer skills. This is to be expected. But they also highly value attributes like critical thinking, communication, problem-solving abilities, and cultural and global awareness. These latter attributes are often identified as desired outcomes of a liberal education. But it’s rarer that we inside universities label them as “skills,” but some outside academia routinely think of them as skills.

So, in some sense, the word “skills” is being used in multiple ways and causing communication problems. I find that many colleagues who take pride in their “disinterested inquiry,” searching for insight and truth, also value that such inquiry builds the ability to think critically, and to communicate in words and speech. They value that such inquiry is global in its reach and requires cultural understanding. They value that a derivative attribute of the experience is empathy towards those quite different from oneself. But often they would not label these as skills.

So, as we all actively contemplate the future of universities and how they can contribute to humankind, I wonder whether we should be more careful to avoid too glibly using the term “skills,” either to denigrate or support some new educational activity. Having a discussion at a finer conceptual level (e.g., empathy, global awareness) might be a wiser course. It’s not that liberal education is antithetical to many personal attributes valued by others as “skills.” It’s that many in academia don’t think of them as skills.

6 thoughts on “What Do We Mean by “Skills?”

  1. Might be interesting to ask the retired faculty how they would define skills especially as it relates to academics just a thought !

  2. I have always thought of the term ” skills ” as meaning a combination of talents and competencies with an eye to some desirable effectuation. Consequently, I do not foresee the need to either shun that term or to keep it reserved for lower-level activity.

  3. The term skills is commonly employed as designating a combination of talents and competencies. Consequently, I do not see why this word should be excluded from discourse on academe. It will suffice to contextualize its deployment.

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