Blogging is a strange occupation - a solitary writer in search of the sort of communion with others that used to happen in the pub, on the corner, on the bus is now engaging with others electronically instead. So much for progress.

THIS blog is about ideas - big and small - connected with one of the things I care about with a passion, namely the future of liberal thought in this country. I am instinctively a radical liberal, with a grudging belief in the value of markets but an abhorrence of statism and indifference, and a strong belief in social justice. I find Labour bankrupt of ideas, and the Tories intellectually flacid. This is my response.

I am intending always to stick to the point: there will be no rabble-rousing talk, and no wasted jibes at other parties and political philosophies.

Comments will be moderated, but anyone can leave one.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

'Skyl', skill and skills - how words affect liberal policy

We use the word 'skills' these days with abandon, forgetting that we have constructed it as a noun only relatively recently (oh, and by the way an etymologist should help us work out just when, and why, we started adding that 's' every time).

Skill (or 'skyl' [OE]) is a term that survived until probably the middle of the seventeenth century relatively unmolested by any association with education. A skilled person was one with a profound discernment that came from practised knowledge - not just someone who could make something, but someone who knew how to judge whether something was well made and make it himself, certainly the attribute associated with a guild Master rather than an apprentice or even a journeyman. A 'skill' was different from 'cunning' (which for centuries had no association with any disreputable), the latter word meaning that one knew something that gave one a skilled understanding. We occasionally, but now quite infrequently, talk about people 'conning' a subject.
What we didn't mean by the term 'skill' until relatively recently (mid-17th century by my reckoning) was a learned ability to produce a particular output or activity. That, for our forebears, would have been to trivialise skill. But, in the industrialised world in which Adam Smith's pin manufactory economics of labour specialism became and remains a key to industrial success that is just the relatively trivial meaning that it is essentially bears. I have 'skill' in something that differentiates my labour from yours.

In recent years we have taken this word so lightly that now we talk about 'skills' (noun) as a thing that we can 'have' or can 'get' or can 'learn'. This is learning to do something with this toolkit or this system, not learning to understand the tools and how they work or the systems of production that are possible and how they are arranged - not the type of 'skyl' that the medieval guild Master was reputed to possess.

What does all this historical etymology mean for liberal thinkers? I think it means quite a lot.

I think we have unthinkingly accepted that 'skyl' is a dirty, small-minded, uneconomic and possibly undemocratic and elitist idea. We did so probably in the early years of the twentieth century when mass production and Taylorian notions of production became commonplace.

I think that we have come to think of 'skill' in that Smithian sense as the instrument for capturing the internal economies of industrial performance. And we have certainly come to think of this new thing, 'skills' (noun, and often these days regarded as singular!), as a bundle of attributes associated with some form of economic activity that need regular replenishing.

'Skills', we are told, are (is?) in demand. What people mean when they say that is not that the profound insight of the Master craftsman is in high demand, but that now, today, we need people who can push button B or pull flange G into alignment, whereas yesterday we will needed people who can push button G and pull flange B into aligment. 'Skill' is a commodity that today only really means 'mechanical skill', the ability to fit in with a cycle of production in that Smithian pin factory in one part of the process today and another tomorrow. Technology may, of course, be the reason why we need people who can pull flange B into alignment tomorrow, but there is nothing else that distinguishes this source of 'skill need' from any other in the pin factory.

When we talk about 'skills' what we inevitably mean, it seems to me, is 'fluidity' - the ability to roll with the punches of modern competitive capitalism. We mean no more and no less than that.

So for that reason can we agree that 'skill' and 'education' can be kept in two very different compartments of policy? I really don't mind my 9 year old son being told that his education may provide him ultimately will 'skyl', but I really object to education being hijacked to provide sustained shareholder returns as technology changes or competition hots up. Let's take 'skills' off the table, and think a bit more about the precious value of 'skyl'. In all of this I know that I am sounding rather like a passionate William Morris or a Paul Lafargue, but that can't be helped.

Let's rescue 'skill' for oblivion, think better of 'skyl' and banish 'skills' from our vocabulary. For the sake of our children.

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