(This post is part of the series on postsecondary education.)
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Robert A. Heinlein once famously enumerated a set of necessary life skills:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.
Let's take this -- Heinlein's syllabus* -- at face value for the sake of argument, and assume he is correct: this list itemizes the necessary content of education that prepares for the vocation of "human being."
What does it mean... "to be able to" do the things on this list?
It isn't obvious. I can think of several possibilities. Let's consider to what extent I am able to perform some of the listed tasks.
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Immediately, scanning down the list, I light upon "solving equations." I can solve equations. I can solve linear-algebraic systems, all sorts of algebraic equations, ordinary and partial differential equations, tensor equations -- not every kind in the world, but a pretty significant chunk. I can balance chemical equations too, even the tricky redox ones. I'd be confident walking into an undergraduate mathematics class and delivering an equation-solving lecture, provided I had a little time to brush up on the specifics.
We can call that level of skill expertise. I'm happy to possess it when it comes to solving equations. Also changing diapers.
But this would be overkill for everything. Heinlein's pretty clear that expertise in the listed tasks is not what he's going for (the very next sentence is "Specialization is for insects"), so let's consider some things that I'm not actually an expert in.
For example, I would never want to teach an undergraduate class in it, but I can program a computer. I would put it on my resume without compunction. I learned BASIC and LOGO as a child, took undergraduate courses in programming, and sat in on graduate seminars in computational fluid dynamics. I'm competent in only one rather old-fashioned language (f77), but my PhD thesis contains many lines of code in it, plus some other people's code that I grafted on. So, yes, not an expert, but I am able to program a computer. I could do it to some extent this afternoon, if called upon. (Hello, world.)
Let's call that level of skill developed competency.
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In an entirely different sense, I "am able to" set a bone. The sense is different because... I've never done that before. I've never watched it done before. I've never read a set of instructions that tell how to do it. I've never learned it as part of my job, or as part of a course of study. I've never sat down and worked out a theory of bonesetting. If I had to do it in an emergency today, I would likely mess it up badly.
I'm confident, with reason, that if I decided to learn, I could and I would. I see value in knowing how. I have a working knowledge of anatomy, and the ability to learn quickly, and I have administered other kinds of first aid. I have a firm belief that people ought to know how to take care of themselves and their dependents in an emergency. I have a book on my shelf about backcountry wilderness medicine. I could get my hands on more books, maybe even find some instructional videos, and I'm confident I could pass a course in wilderness first aid or maybe EMT training.
I don't have expertise, or even developed competency in bonesetting.
What I have is a latent competency. I value the skill; I have enough background knowledge that I could map out a path to acquire it; I have confidence that I could develop the competency if I chose.
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Does that mean I can check off everything on Heinlein's syllabus? If latent competency counts, isn't everybody able to do everything?
I don't think so. Heinlein says, for instance, that a human being should be able to "conn a ship." I don't even know what that means. I have to go look it up.
Okay, I guessed that it meant "to commandeer," but I am told that "to conn" means "to direct the steering of; to navigate, as a boat."
Let me state categorically that I am nowhere close to being able to conn a ship. I do not even have latent competency at ship-conning. I don't much like messing about in boats, I have next to no experience with watercraft of any kind, I have very little experience directing anyone over the age of 14 to do anything, and frankly the whole idea frightens me.
It isn't that I don't see the value in conning a ship. But should I ever find myself at sea, on a vessel whose crew has been stricken by norovirus or pirates or zombies such that some passenger must bravely step up to direct the steering, I'd rather take my chances on some OTHER unknown person being at the wheel. I'll be sitting in a lifeboat, thank you. With a PFD. And someone else who doesn't mind conning a lifeboat.
This, folks, is a kind of incompetence.
But let's be more specific: It's prioritized incompetence.
Basically, I'm an incompetent ship-conner because I judge it so incredibly unlikely that the knowledge will ever prove useful, and the path to acquiring the knowledge so incredibly convoluted, that I quite reasonably prefer to spend my effort learning other things instead.
In other words, despite accepting Heinlein's syllabus for the sake of argument, I don't actually agree with Heinlein that ship-conning is a necessary component of my education. I think it's a kind of specialization, not a basic human skill.
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There's another sort of incompetence that I'd like to highlight, although I will have to appeal to an imaginary person (Mr. Straw-Mann) in order to describe it. Suppose Mr. Straw-Mann is a confirmed pacifist, opposed to all sorts of violence. When it comes to self-defense, Mr. S-M always turns the other cheek, and has since he was a child.
Mr. Straw-Mann is not able to fight efficiently, nor to plan an invasion. He will not acquire this skill because he disdains it. His incompetence at efficient fighting is a point of pride. If the Heinlein Academy requires this skill for graduation, he'll drop out as a matter of conscience.
This would be willful incompetence.
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Finally, for the sake of completeness, let's postulate a person who, by reason of physical or mental inability, can never develop one or more of the competencies on Heinlein's list. A quadriplegic cannot pitch manure, at least not the way most of us envision it. A person with severe language disability cannot write a sonnet. We could call it natural incompetence; or we could call it simply disability, since that has a gentler connotation.
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So we have three ways of being able:
- developed competency
- latent competency
And three ways of being unable:
- prioritized incompetence
- willful incompetence
If we can talk about these different levels of competency, we can more precisely pin down the necessary content of an education, and the necessary preparation for life.
*I probably should name the syllabus, not after Heinlein, but after his fictional character who, I am told, enumerates it. But I have not developed the competency to get through a Heinlein book without rolling my eyes out of my sockets, so I'm going to stick with what I knew before looking for the link, i.e., that "Heinlein wrote it."