Students need soft skills, hard facts

Hank Huckaby, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, was feted by Gov. Nathan Deal last spring with the proclamation of Hank Huckaby Day.

Among Huckaby’s own proclamations in the days surrounding his day of recognition was his statement that Georgians are not filling employment needs “because students are studying the wrong things. … If you can’t get a job, and you majored in drama, there’s probably a reason.”

Although Huckaby’s beliefs referred to students in college, they are often applied to k-12 school curricula. Education, from this perspective, prepares people directly and exclusively for specific jobs. Any course of study that does not serve this utilitarian end is a study of “wrong” material and unlikely to prepare one for employment.

I happen to teach in a field that involves the direct preparation of college students for a specific career: teaching secondary school English. I guess, then, I’m a more valuable faculty member than drama and philosophy professors, because my instruction is highly practical in terms of filling holes in the workforce that require a particular skill set and knowledge base.

Now, I don’t believe that I am, by virtue of teaching in my discipline, of greater value than other faculty. As a product of an old liberal arts education, I found it worth my while to learn things that I would never use on the job. I was, after all, an English major, getting my teaching credentials in a later master’s degree program. How many people are able to use their knowledge of Romantic empiricism or cinquain poetry to make sure frozen French fries don’t thaw while being shipped to St. Louis?

Let’s assume that Huckaby has a point in his critique of the functional value of a formal education. Exactly what sort of job preparation might disciplines within the arts — among those singled out by the chancellor for irrelevance — provide students in terms of workforce readiness?

In school, most learning occurs at the abstract level. Mathematics problems are solved in equations, rather than through managing stock portfolios or maintaining inventories. This abstract emphasis often leads people to distinguish between school and the “real world.” It’s possible, then, that even a full-blown STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) emphasis might not produce the job creation enterprise that Huckaby believes an education ought to comprise.

One aspect of workforce readiness the chancellor overlooks in his emphasis on technical skills is what is known as the “soft skills” involved in establishing and maintaining social relationships. These often involve emotional regulation and the ability to work in group settings, a common imperative stated by business executives in defining a quality workforce.

The term “soft” suggests skills of lesser value; and their historical association with women has given them less status in what remains a male-dominated society than the presumably more “hard” and durable technical expertise valued by the chancellor. I would argue the opposite: that these relational skills are among the most essential abilities that a student can learn in school.

In drama programs, for instance, young people can learn how to work cohesively as a team. Music, sports, arts and other co-curricular activities potentially produce the same results.

The stage performers are only the face of the production. Stagehands, musicians, set designers, lighting personnel and many others are involved in the production. I would say that learning how to function in this sort of social setting is at least as important to workplace competency as knowing how to solve math problems such as, “If z1 = 2 + 5i and z2 = 3 - 2i, what is z1 × z2 as a single complex number?”

Do the arts teach worthwhile workforce skills? Unless you’re working in a vacuum, they surely do.