Skills That Stand the Test of Time

Or why I’m not caught up in 21st century skills hysteria.

I read Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris a few weeks back. It was a fun read for a person who happens to keep paper dictionaries, pencil sharpeners, and a stash of pencils close at hand. As a reader, and a person who punctuates by ear, I appreciate that there are copy editors out there somewhere, with knowledge of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, debating the placement of commas.

[Here’s an article about the importance of a particular comma and a use of quotation marks that gives me pause:


What are we to make of “experts” rather than experts, if anything? Intentional snark or other commentary, or just a proofreading oversight?]

I particularly enjoyed the comparison of the editorial process to making sure that the “tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up” (page 36). No doubt mine is frequently poking up around here, as blogging (for me) tends to be a bit of a publishing a first draft sort of enterprise.

Norris makes the case for copy editors in a world with spell-checkers. When it isn’t unusual to see educators question the need for teaching computational skills in a world with calculators and general knowledge (“mere facts”) in a world with Google, I hope educators take heed that spelling, grammar, and usage are still worth teaching.

Here’s a snippet from my college writing textbook, The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing (2nd Edition), getting at the same idea, in a somewhat hilarious, in hindsight, pitch for using computer word processors, “a valuable new tool for writers” (page 15-16):

As useful as computers may be, however, it is important to remember that they cannot do the work for us. They can neither compose nor make decisions about revising and editing, although they certainly can make the work easier for us.

Funny now to think that we might have needed to be convinced to give word processors a try!

Interesting, if also somewhat hilarious and familiar, is this caution (page 3):

The United States is now an “information” society, one in which the ability to organize and synthesize information and to write intelligently and effectively is even more important than it was in the past.

As it happens, what you can do with what you know being more important that just what you know isn’t strictly a new 21st century concern. Also not new to the 21st century? Critical thinking, understanding, and active learning.

From pages 2 and 3 of St. Martin’s:

Writing also contributes uniquely to the way we learn. When we take notes during lectures or as we read, writing enables us to sort out the information and to highlight what is important. Taking notes helps us to remember what we are learning and yields a written record that we can review later for tests or essays. Outlining or summarizing new information provides an overview of the subject and also fosters close analysis of it. Annotating as we read by underlining and making marginal comments involves us in conversation–even debate–with the author. Thus, writing makes us more effective learners and critical thinkers.

But writing makes another important contribution to learning. Because it is always a composing of new meaning, writing helps us to find and establish our own networks of information and ideas. It allows us to bring together and connect new and old ideas. Writing enables us to clarify and deepen our understanding of a new concept and to find ways to relate it to other ideas within a discipline. Thus, writing tests, clarifies, and extends understanding.

Writing does still more: it contributes to personal development. As we write we become more potent thinkers and active learners, and we come eventually to a better understanding of ourselves through the recording, clarifying, and organizing of our personal experiences and our innermost thoughts.

Besides contributing to the way we think and learn, writing helps us connect to others, to communicate. The impulse to write can be as urgent as the need to converse with someone siting across the table in a restaurant or to respond to a provocative comment in a classroom discussion. Sometimes we want readers to know what we know; we want to share something new. Sometimes we want to influence our readers’ decisions, actions, or beliefs. We may even want to irritate or outrage readers. Or we may want to amuse or flatter them. Writing allows us to overcome our isolation and to communicate in all of these ways.

It wouldn’t take much to update this for the 21st century, perhaps a reference to the impulse to respond to provocative blog posts and internet comments, and definitely striking suggestions to keep an extra typewriter ribbon handy and the use of scissors and tape, paste, or staplers for revising (page 9).