In everyday speech, the keyword “skill” tends to reference applied or vocational knowledge, often in contrast to abstract, academic, or theoretical knowledge. One can be a skillful beekeeper or social organizer without being a credentialed entomologist or sociologist (and the reverse). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes this contemporary definition of “skill” as the “capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty,” the “ability to perform a function, acquired or learnt with practice,” hence “practical knowledge” or “expertness.” But it also references a now archaic meaning of the term as “an art or science” in general. In entries on “art” and “science” in his Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society ([1976] 1983), Raymond Williams notes that this earlier usage references a historical moment that did not functionally divide art and science as ways of knowing or doing. The history of this division has much to tell us about why knowledge and skill have come to seem separable in discussions of education and work and how a rethinking of this separation may be necessary to pursue projects that seek to cross disciplines, sectors, and communities.

Modern distinctions between science and art, theoretical and practical knowledge, began to appear in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, natural philosophers consolidated claims to know the world through the systematic investigation of universal laws. These claims to universal and generalizable knowledge enhanced the prestige and influence of science (which began to name only the natural, physical, and, at times, social sciences) in relation to other fields of knowledge practice (such as the fine arts, liberal arts, and even mechanical arts). All these fields are now commonly understood as separate realms of endeavor, bound by discipline-specific rules of investigation. Higher education inherits these divisions and hierarchies of knowledge at the level of majors and disciplines (with different departments and colleges typically housing the humanities, the arts, and the natural, social, and physical sciences) and institutions (community colleges, polytechnic/technical colleges, comprehensive universities, research universities).

These disciplinary and institutional divisions of knowledge emerged alongside social transformations of work and class in the same period. Knowledge and skill mastery was traditionally learned through apprenticeship within restrictive craft guilds. With the scientific and industrial revolutions, capitalist interests sought to displace craft workers’ knowledge of and control over labor processes. Scientific approaches to management—best exemplified in the assembly line—fueled a drive to rationalize, reorganize, and standardize production (F. W. Taylor [1911] 2010). Where conception and execution had once been unified in the embodied actions of the skilled craft worker, these managerial regimes sought to divide mental and manual labor. Management was able to consolidate control and monopolize knowledge as it simplified and standardized the actions performed by industrial workers. Twentieth-century labor leaders and organic intellectuals from Samuel Gompers to Harry Braverman (1974) critiqued the degradation of labor and laborers that resulted from this process, which came to be referred to as “deskilling” (Burawoy 1985; Jacoby 1998).

Whether the separation of conception and execution ever achieved the outcomes claimed is a matter of some debate, and the craft economy still exists today as a residual formation in the marketing of various “artisanal” products and sectors—craft cocktail or artisanal beer, anyone? But the ideological acceptance of the goals of scientific management—efficiency, division of labor, quality control, speedup—supported the growth of both a professional class that managed workers across sectors and a formal education system that displaced traditional craft guilds in training the next generation of those workers. With the rise of the postwar “multiversity” (large institutions that accommodate multiple scholarly and social interests through general education, traditional disciplines, and professional schools), higher education even began to absorb training functions for professions such as business (MBAs) and creative writing (MFAs) where practitioners had previously gained mastery in communities or on the job (Daniel 1998; Kerr 1963; McGurl 2011). As high education isolated learning from any specific context of application, the referent of the keyword “skill” became more abstract. Standardized testing reinforces this abstraction, with critics arguing that these types of assessment regimes ultimately measure test-taking ability rather than any other form of context-rich, applicable knowledge (Bledstein 1976; Davidson 2017).

The impact of this move toward abstraction is Janus-faced. On the one hand, the abstraction of skill (and knowledge) from situational context opens up innovative applications of new concepts and technologies, such as the use of echolocation technology, originally developed for submarine warfare, in archeology and medical diagnostics. It also creates opportunities for managerial and technical professionals capable of working across traditional fields of practice. In twenty-first-century parlance, these workers are “disruptive innovators” who wield “transferable skills.” On the other, the uncoupling of knowledge and application can be demotivating for many individuals, especially those who do not or cannot expect a payoff in managerial leadership. And it can result in the outright displacement of workers whose skills are no longer valued in their local or regional economy. These workers are told that they need to “reskill” or “upskill” in response to globalizing labor-management regimes, with predictable social and psychological consequences (Liu 2004; Martin et al. 2017; Ross 2003, 2009).

These local and global dynamics provide the backdrop for many of the questions that vex higher education today: How will academic knowledge be applied in practice? What is the relation between educational achievement and workforce development? What is the value proposition of higher education in a world that needs more highly skilled workers? Again, answers tend to be twofold. Aspiring knowledge workers faced with the outsourcing of existing jobs may turn to higher education to gain a competitive edge (“reskilling” or “upskilling”). But the simultaneous privatization of educational costs, globalization of labor, and stagnation of wages may also lead many individuals to question the value of a higher degree. In this context, educational institutions, policy makers, and students themselves have turned to fields of study that promise training in “marketable skills” as they seek a positive return on educational investment. Thus is born the great twenty-first-century battle between the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and liberal arts disciplines, with professional disciplines such as business, nursing, law, and education positioned as wary spectators (Klebnikov 2015; Snow 1959; Teare 2015).

One predictable tactic within this battle has been the attempt to foreground the economic value of the “skills” typically associated with the liberal arts: critical thinking, communication, perspective taking, and using and evaluating evidence. This line of argumentation often references research on the importance of these “soft skills” to business success (Bennett 2016). These efforts at rebranding liberal arts education produce some predictable backlash from within these same disciplines. The interplay between scholars acting as pundits in The Chronicle of Higher Education in spring 2018 is a good example: “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities,” declares Stanley Fish; “Arguments that they are useful are wrong, anti-humanistic, and sure to fail.” “Jobs Will Save the Humanities,” counters another article, mobilizing employer surveys, research at Google, and the Wall Street Journal to legitimate the practical value of an English major (Corrigan 2018).

These types of arguments often conflate the liberal arts with the humanities. While this conflation is maddening to anyone who knows anything about the history of the liberal arts (since the liberal arts have always included math and science), it is also revealing because the humanities are arguably the home of the disciplines most skeptical of the practical and vocational capacities indexed by the keyword “skill.” Disciplines such as literary studies and philosophy evolved out of the nineteenth-century classical curriculum in Greek and Latin: they drew upon associations with a precapitalist, aristocratic past to provide a class education in taste and sensibility and deliberately distanced themselves from concerns of policy and industry. As Toby Miller observes in Blow Up the Humanities (2012), you are much more likely to encounter consideration of skills in the less elite fields he calls “Humanities Two”—the more vocationally oriented formations of communications, media, and cultural studies developed out of public state schools—than in the more prestigious “Humanities One” exemplars like literature, history, and philosophy, which dominate in private liberal arts schools, research institutions, and published scholarship.

It should come as no surprise that this call to “blow up the humanities” comes from a scholar trained in the field of cultural studies. Alongside American studies, ethnic studies, gender studies, and other socially engaged interdisciplines, cultural studies took shape through a powerful and now influential critique of the classed, gendered, and racialized investments of traditional humanities and social science disciplines. Yet these interdisciplinary fields have not always succeeded in refiguring the opposition of abstract knowledge and practical skill. When fields like American studies and cultural studies mobilize a dichotomy between knowledge (either disinterested or critical) and skill (either vocational or academic), they undercut the potential of scholars and students to link abstract critique to practical efficacy through political action, professional development, or social and community engagement.

A rethinking and revaluing of the dichotomy between knowledge and skill are essential to realizing this potential. As education scholar Mike Rose notes in The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker (2014), “Dichotomies such as concrete versus abstract, technique versus reflection breakdown in practice. The surgeon’s judgement is simultaneously technical and deliberative, and that mix is the source of its power.” The same could be said of the judgments of the community organizer, human resources specialist, or university professor. Each of them relies on both knowledge and skills when they create a community meeting agenda, intervene in a difficult personnel matter, or design a syllabus with a specific student population in mind. The important point is that, when seen from the embodied perspective of a practitioner, all knowledge and skills are simultaneously situational and transferable. They may be best conceived through the single term “knowledge-skills” (to modify Michel Foucault’s concept of “knowledge-power”) with “power” or “pouvoir” signifying “to be able to” (1980). Knowledge-skills originate in particular contexts, and their successful deployment, in industrial and postindustrial times, requires their application and adaptation to new contexts.

Significant research in the fields of cultural studies and American studies testifies to the ways in which this shuttling of knowledge and skills across sites of application is central to the history of education and professionalization in the United States and elsewhere. Medical schools enabled the professionalization of the (largely male) field of obstetrics through the active displacement of (largely female) midwives in the nineteenth century (Poovey 1986). The field of academic history took shape though the exclusion of historical research pursued by local historical societies and family genealogists (Klein 2005). Academic jazz training emerged with a too-often disavowed debt to Black churches, public schools, dance halls, and nightclubs as spaces where musicians learned and practiced their craft (Bush 2014). In each of these instances, context-specific skills and knowledge were cultivated in informal institutions and community formations and then appropriated by educational institutions that profited by providing credentials to professionals in those fields. As this scholarship points out, the ongoing problem is that this shuttling across fields of practice is not reciprocal, with the result that prestige and privilege accrue to the institutions that market credentials, the professionals who acquire them, and professional organizations that require them.

The question for cultural studies and American studies is whether this unequal distribution of prestige and privilege is inevitable. As the community engagement, “alt-ac” (or “alternative academic”), and critical university studies movements have demonstrated in different ways, higher education fails its communities and its students when it does not diversify the sites of community and professional practice where the skills students seek to develop can be learned, applied, and honed (Koritz and Schadewald 2016; Bartha and Burgett 2014; #Alt-Academy 2011; Bethman and Longstreet 2013; Sanders 2014; Marez 2014; Jay 2011). The most frequent targets of this critique are those liberal arts disciplines that train students only to be future professionals in that discipline (leaving it to the campus career center to deal with the other 99 percent), but the implications are broader. The critique points toward the necessity of reorienting undergraduate and graduate education toward recognizing and teaching diverse sets of knowledge-skills across multiple political, social, and career contexts. It also points toward the need to bridge academic and nonacademic sectors and to recognize the different values indexed by and attributed to knowledge-skills across various domains of practice. Doing so may free us to name and claim the efficacy, pleasure, and shaping influence of skills that lie both in and beyond our professional identities.


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