E Jane Dickson: What are 'life skills' without knowledge?

Facts may be difficult to learn, but they are the building blocks of morality
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The Independent Online

"Pure logic," said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "is the ruin of the spirit." It was certainly the ruin of mine. As a first-year philosophy student, I was painfully bewildered by the "if 'x' is true and 'y' is not true, all popes have big noses" aspect of the discipline. I had signed up to find out the Meaning of Life and here I was staring at what looked horribly like hard sums. I doubt I'd have stayed the course if an enlightened and humane professor (with a fondness for Irish girls) hadn't extended a generous waiver "on grounds of nationality".

These days the professor would be up on a double charge of sexism and racism, but I was – and remain – profoundly grateful, because once the logic thing finally "clicked", it became the promised golden key and many other aspects of acquired knowledge swam, admittedly quite slowly, into focus. I had, to use our educational buzzword du jour, acquired a "life skill".

I'm not sure the incorporation of pure logic into the national curriculum is what Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, had in mind when she told delegates at the union's annual conference this week that public education should be "far more focused on the development of life skills and ways of working than whether or not we teach the Battle of Hastings". But when she went on to say, "We have got to move beyond 'Should we or should we not teach Shakespeare'. Our world is not going to collapse if they [our children] don't know 'To be or not to be'", I heard the distinct mewling of babies in bathwater.

Dr Bousted's comments were intended to support her belief that a regime of "rote learning and constant testing" is demotivating pupils, with many branded as "failures" even before they move up to secondary school. I can see that Samuel Beckett's tough advice "fail again, fail better" is not best suited to infant minds; no one wishes to see pupils discouraged by impossible standards. However, as the parent of two children in state education, I am far from convinced that lowering the bar is the answer.

"We are not dumbing down," insists Dr Bousted. "We are raising up. A skills-based curriculum demands that you make connections between different subject domains. That requires thought." Quite so, but unless you have a solid body of knowledge to which you are going to apply these skills, how far will they take you?

The argument for shifting the emphasis from traditionally acquired knowledge to skills such as "critical thinking" and "the ability to research" is driven by technology; if today's computer-literate children have the answer to every question at the click of the mouse, it is reasoned, what's the point in clogging up their own hard drives with historical dates or chunks of poetry? The "well-stocked" mind, in the era of Wikipedia, is simply superfluous to requirements.

Which would be fine, if children were indeed like computers, equally excited by every piece of knowledge that passes through them. But they are not. Most 10-year olds are not hugely interested in weighing up the socio-economic factors contributing to the success of the Norman invasion, but they thrill to the bit where Harold cops an arrow in the eye, and , if they're lucky, that will spark enough interest to engage their critical faculties. Do we really want our children to learn in a relativist Wikitopia where the loudest voice in cyberspace wins through? History, surely, is slippery enough.

Facts may be dull and difficult to learn, but they are the building blocks, not just of history, but of morality. Will any "life skills" module capture the drama of risk assessment with more urgency or human drama than "To be or not to be"? I seriously doubt it. Nor, if we're talking citizenship, is there any more beautiful model of welfare governance than Lear's "Oh reason not the need, our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous...". There won't, I hazard, be too many skills teachers fresh out of college who can encompass not just the need for reason, but also its natural limits.

There is , of course, considerable irony in the fact that while the Government considers how best to encourage independent thinking in teenagers, Members of Parliament opposed, in conscience, to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, continue to quake under the government whip. It's not just children who could do with lessons in decision-making. But we don't need more "life skills" in the curriculum. They were there all along.