Good Read: Forget 21st Century skills – revive 18th Century skills (Donald Clark)

Donald Clark has written a new blog post tackling the omnipresent 21st Century Skills and he wants us to go back to the enlightenment:

I’m all for abandoning this ‘21st century’ label – we’re 15% into it already and education has become less interested in these skills, more academic, more test-driven, PISA obsessed and has failed to use the technology that we all use, even during the dull lectures we’re still fed. Forget futurists, I want some educational archaeologists that revive 18th century enlightenment values.
Samuel Johnson said, “Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book”. The figures who led the charge against the religious basis of schooling and universities in the enlightenment were people like Johnson, who existed outside of the system, enjoyed unorthodox opinion and encouraged real critical thinking. David Hume, my favourite enlightenment figure, who was rejected by Edinburgh University for being an ‘unbeliever would be shocked to find that find religious studies, and not philosophy, is still taught in schools. Why teach the love of a set of incompatible systems of certainty, rather than the love of critical thought, a sceptical disposition and autonomous thinking. I’d prefer young people to have the skills that keep them sceptical, critical and independent. To be honest, I suspect they have in abundance. Like their enlightenment forefathers they don’t want to lock up knowledge in institutions but share, discuss, communicate, even hang out in coffee shops.
But actually, I’m thinking maybe we could go back even further to the Philosophia et septem artes liberales, The seven liberal arts, as Sarah Adams explains:

The first three disciplines, the Trivium, all deal with linguistic mastery because language allows vague impressions to be processed, articulated and communicated as complex ideas. Thus meaning cannot be accessed or shared without language. Grammar covers language’s mechanics, how to translate ideas into coherent words. Rhetoric deals with style, or the ability to make words eloquent and moving. And Dialectic is logic, the ability to parse competing claims and ideas so that eloquent rhetoric cannot hide poor ideas. The Trivium makes communication foundational to the process of finding meaning.

The Quadrivium is also grounded in the search for meaning. Though it divides the physical world into distinct subjects, each subject asks “Why is this information significant? What does it say about my role in the universe?” The four subjects may seem oddly limited for a twenty-first century university, but broadly understood they still represent the core knowledge that Millennials need and the meaningful life they crave.

The Quadrivium divides the study of the physical world into theoretical and applied math (arithmetic and geometry), science (astronomy), and art (music). As broad categories of learning, these are still the foundational subjects students need for a well-rounded understanding of the world. Modern curricula may use different terminology, but the areas of knowledge are still essentially the same. For example, Millennials may take calculus and statistics, but they are still studying math in its theoretical and applied forms.

The physical sciences have been subdivided into many more areas than astronomy, but the need to understand the mechanics of the universe remains.

What the Quadrivium model brings to this form of study is the philosophical and ethical questions that give knowledge meaning and purpose. The liberal arts don’t merely expect students to absorb a certain set of facts in each area. For example, music, to medieval scholars, was not just mastery of a scale. Music, and other arts, were ways of exploring and expressing the human soul, of communicating with God and one’s fellow man. Astronomy did not just ask “what is a star made of?” but “does the immensity of space imply my relative significance in the universe? The liberal arts expect students to continually ask “What does this information mean? What does it tell me about being human?”

What do you think? Should we go back to the 18th or even the 5th century?

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