Twenty-first century skills and poverty: Try Thucydides, Socrates, and Kant

I wince every time I read something like this:

The committee found the skills considered necessary for the 21st-century workplace generally fall into three categories: cognitive, such as critical thinking and analytic reasoning to learn “deeply”; interpersonal, such as teamwork and complex communications; and intrapersonal, such as resiliency and conscientiousness.
The “political life,” as Thucydides described it, was the way out of poverty.

That’s from a recent Education Week story titled, “Panel Parses Out Skills Needed for 21st-Century Workplace.” I realize I’m not the only one to notice, but the problem—didn’t one need cognitive, personal, and intrapersonal abilities in the twentieth-century workplace? Or the nineteenth? Or the second?—was brought home not long ago when I saw that Earl Shorris had died. Shorris, a writer and social critic, as the headline on the New York Times obituary had it: “Fought Poverty With Knowledge.” And it was not the knowledge that proponents of twenty-first century skills are pushing; it was “rigorous readings and explications of Aristotle on logic, Plato on justice and Kant’s theory of morality.”

Shorris came to this insight about poverty while working on a book in the early 1990s, when he met Viniece Walker, a female inmate in a New York State prison, a “graduate of crackhouses,” as he would later write in a masterful 1997 piece for Harper’s. By that time he had concluded that

numerous forces—hunger, isolation, illness, landlords, police, abuse, neighbors, drugs, criminals, and racism, among many others—exert themselves on the poor at all times and enclose them, making up a “surround of force” from which, it seems, they cannot escape.  I had come to understand that this was what kept the poor from being political and that the absence of politics in their lives was what kept them poor. I don’t mean “political” in the sense of voting in an election but in the way Thucydides used the word: to mean activity with other people at every level, from the family to the neighborhood to the broader community to the city-state.

Most of us understand the first part of Shorris’ observation—the “surround of force”—but the second, “the absence of politics” in their lives, was transformational. And Viniece Walker sealed the deal. He asked her how to cure poverty and she replied, “You got to begin with the children…. You’ve got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children,” she told him. “And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures, where they can learn the moral life of downtown.”

That was not the answer that Shorris expected—nor, would I think, is it the answer that most modern educators, policymakers, and a population still saturated with Great Society notions of poverty, would expect. She didn’t say jobs. She didn’t say money. She said “the moral life of downtown.” And what she meant by that, as Shorris recounts, was “the humanities, the study of human constructs and concerns, which has been the source of reflection for the secular world since the Greeks first stepped back from nature to experience wonder at what they behold.”

The “political life,” as Thucydides described it, was the way out of poverty. And the humanities “provided an entrance to reflections and the political life. The poor did not need anyone to release them; an escape route existed. But to open this avenue to reflection and politics a major distinction between the preparation for the life of the rich and the life of the poor had to be eliminated.”

This is certainly not the kind of talk you hear at education policy meetings or twenty-first century skills confabs—though it should be. The “escape route” was learning the art of reflection, which came from studying those who knew.

Inspired by Ms. Walker’s advice and his own passions, Shorris went on to create a humanities course for the adult poor at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in New York City in 1995. Since then, the program has grown to include some twenty cities around the country, and in Canada, Australia, and Korea. (Abby Goodnough profiles a Clemente Course in Massachusetts in Sunday’s Education Life insert in the Times.)

Part of Shorris’ insight was one that E.D. Hirsch had about the value of “background knowledge,” and that is that most middle- and upper-middle-class Americans (most of our education establishment) had learned their “political life” skills (their background knowledge), in their schools and neighborhoods and intact families and didn’t appreciate the value of what they had learned, much less understand how much more crucial such knowledge would be for the poor, who had none of it.

Shorris recalled the words of the great University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins:  “The best education for the best is the best education for us all.”

Wrote Shorris,

If the multigenerational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking—reflection…. And that is a beginning. [The study of the humanities is] in itself a redistribution of wealth.

If we are to bring the poor to twenty-first century table, it must be through the wisdom of the ancients and the skills of reflection.

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