In praise of versatile skills

In an age of informational and technological upheaval, transferable skills are as integral to education as knowledge

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Theodore 0. Yntema | Mar 20, 1964

Sections Economics

The long-running Selected Papers series features notable work by University of Chicago faculty and other business leaders. This essay is an edited excerpt; the original was presented in 1964 at the Winter Convocation of the University of Chicago.

Saint Augustine, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, asserted that as a result of his education he could read anything that was written and understand anything he heard said, as well as say anything he thought. A millennium later, a Renaissance man could be accomplished in the arts and learned in all the sciences. Today, this is impossible. Human knowledge is so vast that no man can even describe its bounds or subdivisions, let alone comprehend what lies within them.

Moreover, knowledge is expanding at an explosive rate. New knowledge will make existing knowledge and specialized skills inadequate and obsolete. If you stop learning, you will soon find yourself on the intellectual scrap heap.

In a recent seminar Theodore Schultz  appraised the prospective obsolescence of various types of educational attainments. [Schultz was a member of the University of Chicago faculty who helped pioneer the study of human capital, and who would go on to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences—Ed.] In order of decreasing obsolescence and increasing durability he listed: (1) vocational and job skills, (2) knowledge of principles and theories, (3) ability to solve problems and develop analytical tools, and (4) ability to keep on learning.

Fleeting facts memorized for examination, debate, or other special occasion he did not even bother to list.

Let me emphasize these points. Specialized vocational skills are likely to be made obsolete by advances in science and technology. The subject matter of science will be more permanent, but it, too, will undergo correction and modification as well as enormous expansion. Problem-solving ability and the ability to continue one’s education will be least subject to obsolescence and most likely to be useful throughout life.

I would expand Schultz’s list of durable skills in a few respects. And then I would point out that those skills and abilities that are most durable are likewise most universally useful—needed in all walks of life and transferable from one field of endeavor to another.

The advantages of transferable skills

The basic, transferable skills may be described as (1) the ability to perceive problems and solve them; (2) the ability to understand people, to communicate with them, and to deal with them well, as individuals and in groups; (3) the ability to organize, to structure data into an ordered pattern, to marshal scarce resources for given ends. You might add to this list two other generally useful skills and habits: memory and the devotion of wholehearted effort to the task at hand.

Why can former Ford Motor Company President Robert McNamara within a few months master and direct the defense efforts of this country? Why can George Beadle turn from his Nobel Prize–winning work in genetics and become a distinguished president of the University of Chicago? Why can consultants tackle problems new to them and solve them with dispatch? Why can good teachers become successful executives? Why can men change careers and achieve greater success than if they had stuck to the first one? Why do some men have perception and wisdom in matters outside as well as inside their specialties? Simply because problems are problems, people are people, organization is organization; because there are transferable skills and abilities; and because these men possess such abilities in high, even superlative, degree.

Helping the student to learn about people may be difficult, but it should not be beyond the ingenuity or beneath the dignity of an academic institution.

If you can see and solve problems, if you can deal with people effectively, if you can organize the resources you command, if you can work wholeheartedly, if you have a good memory, then you can be a success in any of a wide range of careers, and you may be able to change careers without much loss and perhaps with much gain.

I do not imply that overnight you can become a great surgeon, or physicist, or lawyer, or singer. Some careers require special talents, and some require long training. I do say, however, that in practically all walks of life these basic, transferable skills are needed and that in some they constitute a substantial part of the requisites for success. Moreover, as noted, they are durable—useful throughout life.

Neglect comes naturally

In all matters there is a temptation to do what is easy and neglect what is difficult. So there is a temptation to teach facts and neat theories and to neglect some of the basic skills and abilities that are not so readily reducible to fact and formula.

The process of seeing and solving problems I shall call the “scientific method”—even though this usage may offend some of my scientist friends. The scientific method involves observation, the detection of similarities and dissimilarities in phenomena, the tentative specification of categories and relationships based on observation and on deduction from prior discoveries, and the testing of such tentative hypotheses by experiment and experience.

The scientific method, as I am using the term, is not the special prerogative of the physical, or biological, or social sciences. Science and the scientific method are not the same thing. Science is the body of ordered knowledge. The scientific method is the process of seeing and solving problems. Many students in the sciences do not learn the scientific method because they do not learn to perceive problems or invent hypotheses for their solution.

Perception and discovery

In the conventional curriculum there are courses in analytical methods, in logic, in mathematics, in a priori and inverse probabilities, and in statistics. But where and how is the student to learn perception of the problem and discovery of hypothesis-invention, if you will? And how much practice does he get in taking a vague general idea and converting it into specific form to be tested? How does a student learn to summon and take account of all pertinent evidence and appraise its relevance, its importance, and its credibility? How does he learn to form sound judgments?

Or take the matter of understanding people, communicating with them, and dealing with them effectively as individuals and in groups. I suppose that there are more courses in these subjects offered at many universities than a person could complete in a lifetime of study. Yet most of these courses are specialized, as in psychiatry or education, or else they deal with people impersonally or en masse, as in economics or political science.

How shall the student improve his understanding of the individuals and groups with whom he has personal contact? How shall he learn to perceive their motivations, their probable reactions, their abilities, their potentials? How shall he learn to communicate with them, not only by written word but by speech, in all the variations appropriate to the particular occasions? How shall he learn to communicate by actions and by all the other sensory means? How shall he learn to give and to take; to speak and to be silent; to trust and to distrust; to compete and to cooperate; to follow and to lead; to serve and to direct?

There is no field in which high-quality research would pay off so handsomely to the people of this country as in education—its objectives and substance as well as its technology.

The scholars in a university know a great deal about people. There is also a great deal that they do not know. But the fact that they do not know everything is hardly an excuse for failing to make available to college students in systematic form the essence of what they do know. Helping the student to learn about people may be difficult, but it should not be beyond the ingenuity or beneath the dignity of an academic institution.

Next we come to organization. In the common operational sense, organization is the marshaling of scarce resources for identified ends. It makes use of the same concepts and processes as those used to structure facts into a science. The proliferation of facts would make education impossible were it not for order and organization. Life would be impossible if we did not practice organization and is inefficient if we do not practice it well. In the educational process, however, we have to learn organization in bits and pieces—with hardly ever an indication that this is the essence of science and of rational existence. Because organization is not a conventional category of research, it does not usually qualify as a respectable subject for instruction. Should this be so? 

When I raise these questions, I am told that such skills and abilities cannot be taught. Well, of course, you cannot teach anybody anything. As Dean [George Packer] Berry of the Harvard Medical School once said, “‘Educate’ is not a transitive verb.” The question is not whether you can teach perception and judgment and understanding of people and organization. The question is whether you can help the student to learn these things, and then whether what he learns is worth the cost of helping him.

Steps toward solutions

How can the student learn the transferable skills and abilities most effectively? The answer to this question requires more knowledge and wisdom than I possess. I can offer only a few tentative suggestions.

First, breadth of liberal education is helpful. The student exposed to problems in various fields may perhaps discover that the skills required in one are needed in another. I still remember my surprise and excitement one night forty-odd years ago when I discovered that the calculus I had learned for physical chemistry enabled me to read easily the differential equations describing economic theory—and thus to compress months of undergraduate study into a single evening.

There seems to be agreement that a man who has little knowledge of or feeling for the humanities does not possess a liberal education. Surely, the converse is also true: that a humanist who cannot read the universal language of mathematics, including differential equations, or who cannot read the descriptions of the world about him in simple scientific terms is illiterate.

We have too many teachers in particular sciences who are ignorant of the other sciences and the humanities, too many mathematicians ignorant of the uses of their subject, too many humanists illiterate in science and mathematics. We need at least some teachers who can recognize the common factors in education and the common concepts transferable from one field to another and who will give the student some clues in this respect. 

At the hazard of being ridiculed, I suggest that it may even be feasible to have courses in such subjects as the perception of problems, invention, judgment, understanding people and working with them, and organization. This suggestion does not imply that these abilities can best be developed by studying them in the abstract; on the contrary, they can best be learned, I think, by studying them in relation to real or well-simulated problems. 

Why are cases widely used in law schools and business schools for instructional purposes? Why are decision theory and game theory and game practice beginning to appear in the curriculum? These are efforts to simulate real situations and to call forth perception, invention, judgment, organization, and the consideration of human behavior as an important variable.

A great educational tragedy of the 20th century is the decline of the family enterprise, the store, the shop, and especially the farm. In the small enterprise, young people had a chance to perceive problems, to work out their solutions, to deal with people, and to practice organization. In so much of education the student is remote from reality—an outsider, a spectator, a critic. In some part of his education he needs to be involved personally in a complex of problems, people, and organization, so that he can develop by practice the essential skills needed in all fields of endeavor.

This can be accomplished in many ways. Formal courses in some fields can present realistic, many-faceted problems. Responsible participation in home life and engagement in student activities and summer work are important. All life, in school and out, on the job and off, presents endless opportunities for seeing and solving problems, for learning how to deal with people and for practicing organization. Some persons seize these opportunities for continuing education and development; some blindly pass them by. 

The critical importance of improving education

The deficiencies in education are no small matter. Counting the value of students’ time, education absorbs about one-twelfth of all our productive efforts. Education and research are by far the most important sources of economic progress and improvement in our standard of living. Investment in education is highly productive, both for the individual and for the community.

In our schools, colleges, and universities we shall need more money, more teachers, more buildings, and more equipment to make places for the coming avalanche of students. But expansion is not enough. In this industry, so huge and so critical to our growth and well-being, there are pitifully small resources devoted to research aimed at improving the product and the process of production. In the federal government the resources allocated to research in education are less than those provided for fish and wildlife research. I suspect a similar situation prevails in the individual states. Nor do private universities devote large sums to such work.

There is no field in which high-quality research would pay off so handsomely to the people of this country as in education—its objectives and substance as well as its technology. This cannot be done in our departments of education alone. It will take men of high competence from many fields and men of large talents and great wisdom. I cannot write a prescription for this work. I can say only that I have a deep conviction it can be done if sufficient resources and talents are devoted to it.

If education can become more efficient, it will not only economize resources, especially the very costly time of students, which is too often regarded as a free good; it will also yield enormous dividends in better-equipped and more-productive people, who are the source of our growth and strength and well-being. 

Theodore 0. Yntema was professor of business and economic policy at Chicago Booth. He passed away in 1985.