civic skills, workplace skills

Through most of the twentieth century, it seemed that democratic skills conflicted with workplace skills, just as the organizational structures of democracy were inefficient for producing consumer goods. Engineers divided factory production into the smallest possible units; workers were trained in specialized tasks and given little discretion. They weren’t supposed to address problems or set an agenda for their organizations. Meanwhile, white-collar professionals were also expected to specialize. They had no normative insight–no claim to know what should be done–but only a grasp of the most efficient means to a given end. Their amoral knowledge conferred power. In contrast, democracy was supposed to be egalitarian and concerned with normative questions about a society’s goals and ends. Democratic citizens were supposed to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and moral agents.

Unfortunately, training for the workforce would tend to undermine civic skills, and vice-versa. A highly critical, independent-minded, generally educated citizen would simply be miserable in a factory. To make matters worse, scientific rationality and specialization were seen as synonymous with efficiency. Therefore, if a democratic government wanted to be an efficient check or counterweight in the marketplace, then it needed to become like a big firm, rationalized, hierarchical, and specialized–in a word, bureaucratic. But then there would be less work for citizens to do in the public sector (for which they would nevertheless have to pay taxes). The result was a deep dilemma for democracy, and especially for those who hoped that public action might reduce human misery.

According to a fascinating article by Dorf and Sabel, “A Constitution of Democratic Experimentalism” (click for the huge .doc file), the tension between civic skills and organizations and the norms of the factory lessened when Japanese manufacturers revolutionized industrial production by replacing assembly lines with teams of generalists. Instead of giving each worker a set of unchanging tasks, the Japanese car companies established benchmarks for production and challenged work teams to beat them. Even after these techniques began to spread to the US (and especially to white-collar work), there remained a tension between the workplace and democracy. But today the contrast in values and skills is less stark than it used to be.

That trend is evident in certain current efforts at educational reform. The National Governors’ Association uses Achieve, a nonprofit, to conduct surveys and other studies to determine empirically what skills workers need for today’s jobs and higher education. Achieve publishes lists of such skills. To a striking degree, what workers need are also what citizens need: abilities to work together in groups to define and address problems. See “below the fold” for a list of Achieve skills that strike me as highly civic.

(NB: Before we get carried away with enthusiasm for the new workplace and its civic character, it’s worth noting that Achieve correlates skills to particular job titles. Even according to their analysis, machine operators and wafer fabrication and manufacturing technicians–two of the 10 jobs provided for illustrative purposes–need none of the advanced civic skills.)

According to Achieve, the successful high school graduate can …

a. 7 Comprehend and communicate quantitative, technical and mathematical information.

Give and follow spoken instructions to perform specific tasks, to answer questions or to solve problems.

(Associated Workplace Tasks: #1 and 2)

B2. Summarize information presented orally by others.

B3. Paraphrase information presented orally by others.

B4. Identify the thesis of a speech and determine the essential elements that elaborate it.

B5. Analyze the ways in which the style and structure of a speech support or confound its meaning or purpose.

B6. Make oral presentations [with 7 specified attributes, including “support[ing] pport judgments with sound evidence and well-chosen details;

mak[ing] skillful use of rhetorical devices.”

B7. Participate productively in self-directed work teams for a particular purpose (for example, to interpret literature, write or critique a proposal, solve a problem, make a decision), including:

* posing relevant questions;

* listening with civility to the ideas of others;

* extracting essential information from others’ input;

* building on the ideas of others and contributing relevant information or ideas in group discussions;

* consulting texts as a source of ideas;

* gaining the floor in respectful ways;

* defining individuals’ roles and responsibilities and setting clear goals;

* acknowledging the ideas and contributions of individuals in the group;

* understanding the purpose of the team project and the ground rules for decision-making;

* maintaining independence of judgment, offering dissent courteously, ensuring a hearing for the range of positions on an issue and avoiding premature consensus;

* tolerating ambiguity and a lack of consensus; and

* selecting leader/spokesperson when necessary.

C4. Drawing on readers’ comments on working drafts, revise documents to develop or support ideas more clearly, address potential objections, ensure effective transitions between paragraphs and correct errors in logic.

(Associated Workplace Tasks: #4, 5 and 6)

(Associated Postsecondary Assignments: #4, 5 and 6)

C5. Edit both one’s own and others’ work for grammar, style and tone appropriate to audience, purpose and context.

D3. Make distinctions about the credibility, reliability, consistency, strengths and limitations of resources, including information gathered from Web sites.

E1. Distinguish among facts and opinions, evidence and inferences.

E4. Evaluate the range and quality of evidence used to support or oppose an argument.

E6. Analyze written or oral communications for false assumptions, errors, loaded terms, caricature, sarcasm, leading questions and faulty reasoning.

F5. Interpret and use information in maps, charts, graphs, time lines, tables and diagrams.

H1. Demonstrate knowledge of 18th and 19th century foundational works of American literature.

(Associated Postsecondary Assignment: #6)

H2. Analyze foundational U.S. documents for their historical and literary significance (for example, The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”).

H8. Analyze the moral dilemmas in works of literature, as revealed by characters’ motivation and behavior.

L2.1. Evaluate reports based on data published in the media by considering the source of the data, the design of the study, and the way the data are analyzed and displayed.

L2.2. Identify and explain misleading uses of data.

L2.3. Recognize when arguments based on data confuse correlation with causation.