Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Thu, 6 Jan 2000 08:15:30 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: The "Soft" Skill


Good morning. The coffee at my side is invitingly delicious. More important, it's hot. I occasionally pass my hands over it as if it was a pot belly stove to loosen my fingers stiffened by the outside chill. As I stepped into the pre-dawn dark this morning for my walk I heard a thud. It wasn't the door slamming behind me. It was the temperature drop. Brrrrrr! The goose bumps on my bare legs rose as high the Himalayan range. Two days ago, it was shorts and a thin shirt. I quickly turned and ran back into the house for my sweats, knitted hat, and gloves.

As I pounded the streets all wrapped up in my grubbies, I started getting wrapped up in excited thoughts about syllabi, projects, students. After almost a month hiatus, I am itching to get back into the classroom and rub shoulders with those neat people. The beginning of the spring semester is approaching. It starts next Monday: the almost first Monday in the almost new millenium. As soon that word, Monday, hit the cold, pre-dawn air, I started to heatedly think about one recent December Monday night, the almost last Monday in the almost old millenium.

I was lazily flipping channels during a timeout of the Monday Night Football game. Stopping on the nearby PBS channel, I heard a discussion of a report about a survey of Georgia business persons. The gist of it was that what business executives said they needed and wanted most from college graduates was what this person called "soft skills": initiative, teamwork, attitude, and above all, character. The development of these skills, they said, is so lacking in graduates. Yet, they emphasized, they are so imperative in the education of future people in business.

I nearly fell off the couch! Was I hearing right? Business men, those denizens of the foreboding, sordid rough-and tumble, no-holds-barred, dog-eat-dog world, talking about character and attitude? The heck with the ball game! I stayed glued to that program to make sure my ears were not deceiving me.

"Hoorah!" I whispered to myself with combined "I don't believe it" and "its about time" tone. Could it be? Unlike most people in the isolated "Ivory Tower," some people out there in the "real world" are figuring out that all human beings, learning beings, are not just thinking beings, but emotional beings as well, and that attitude is the fuel that drives the engine.

As a practioner of wholeness or character (notice that I did not say "values") education, I couldn't be happier with what I was hearing. That there is an emotional--call it attitude or spirit if it makes you more comfortable--component to teaching and learning that is inseparable from its intellectual and informational and technological and pedagogical aspects has been my second teaching principle for the past eight years ago.

Yet, for most of us in academia that "soft skill" is a hard sell. Most everyone gets skittish with the idea that this "soft skill" has a place in the intellectual and rational "hard skill "world. It is, after all, focused on the wrong subject: people. So many seem fearful of that "soft skill." It is, after all, dangerously personal and involving with other people. So many seem embarrassed by it and wince at the idea that to be anything other than totally brainy, would be a return to the uncontrolled, animal brutishness ancestry that we humans had risen above and left behind; that to embrace this "soft skill" would be a sign that we, the epitome of Homo Sapien, "Thinking Man," are going through reverse Darwinism. So they rush to repel the assault against the Ivory Tower's "hard" defenses. From the battlements, they fire verbal arrows and pour phrases of burning oil: "subjective," "silly," "waste," "Patchy," "hallmarkish," "touchy-feely B.S.," "childish." and "kindergartenish."

But, there is a fascinating and naturally organic marriage between emotion and intellect between what I call the "hard skills" of what people KNOW, THINK, and DO, and that "soft skill" of what they FEEL. Every athlete who has played on a field or court knows that; every artist who has lifted a paint brush or chisel knows that; every writer who has set a word down knows that; every actor who has walked out on a stage knows that; every musician who has played an instrument knows that; every dancer who has performed knows that. Almost every academician denies or ignores that.

That's a pity since we supposedly are developing the full and unique potential of a person. Yet, without developing that "soft skill," we haven't placed a balanced meal of food for thought on the student's plate. Without that missing essential nutrient in the teaching and learning diets, the student's education, as this study indicates, is more than a tad malnourished and our teaching is a tad anemic..

I once went out on a limb and said that the absence of heart is the greatest ailment of education and that the heart of an education is the teaching of the heart. I'll stay way out on that branch. It feels kind of stronger.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think the three "hard skills" are essential. It is important TO KNOW historical facts, understand management principles, be able to deal with chemical formulae, operate a computer, and understand Shakespeare. I think it is important TO THINK: to have critical thinking, problem perceiving, problem solving, communication, and social skills. I think it is essential TO DO: to apply those skills and utilize formulae, axioms, theories, principles, and facts.

But, it is the ignored fourth element of learning, the soft skill, TO FEEL, that is at the hard core of learning. It is catalyst that transforms ability into talent. This is the one I want to dwell on. Emotions are a clue -- a powerful clue -- as to what someone is ready, willing and able to do. The emotional censors of deep hurt, insecurity, self-denigration, and emptiness stifle development and hamstring performance just as the emotional sanctioners of self-confidence, self-worth, pride, integrity, pursuit of excellence, and humility bring out the willingness to work hard, and accept challenge and develop the student's innate ability. Much of teaching should include discovering the vocabulary to develop one's internal emotional state, to develop students into positive believers without which they cannot be doers. They'll just be "don'ters" and "won'ters." Therefore, as a devotee of student-centered learning, I don't repress emotions; I don't ignore them; I don't banish them. To the contrary, I invite them; I embrace them; I cue off of them.

There is an old saying in baseball--a hungry player will beat you: attitude, spirit, feeling. TO FEEL. It is vital for us to develop students with the character skills, with that "soft skill" necessary to utilize their intellectual skills: to have the courage to apply those skills, to be honest with themselves and others when they are facing challenges and the going gets tough, to be sufficiently humble to help fellow workers along the way and to ask for help, to be confident enough to risk failure, to have sufficient pride to give it their best shot, to be modest enough to know that their best can always be better, to have the daring to venture into new worlds, to have the courage to make a decision, to find the sense of independence to have faith in your future, to believe in yourself, to do what you think should be done, to have judgement and the confidence to use it, to be a "possibility" thinker and doer, to have intellectual agility and strength of character to know how to ask the questions, to be able to move from idea to idea, stay ahead of issues, be creative and imaginative, to see what is yet to be, and be self-confident and courageous to act on those visions, and to have the integrity to achieve the honest way.

This is true in business as this report indicates; it is true in every profession; it is true throughout life.

The "hard skills" will come up short, however, if there are shortcomings in "soft skills." And to ignore the development of the "soft skill" is to short-change a student's education.


It seems silly, doesn't it, to unnaturally separate the naturally indivisible, not to develop everything a person potentially has, not to develop and use the power of a person's attitude to inform, energize, direct, and utilize a person's thinking process and action.

This business person said that education, therefore, had to change as rapidly as business in this rapidly changing world. His correct implication--criticism to put it mildly--however, was that educators, supposed agents of change, more often than not, prove to be far more kindred to snails than to ocelots when it comes to change. Then he closed his comments with an illustrating quote from Georgia's ex-governor, Zell Miller, which coincidentally I have hanging on the wall in my office: "It's easier to change the course of history than to change a history course."

Educational glacial movements in hurried times.


Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
912-333-5947                       /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
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                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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