Use your bloomin’ mind, get some bloomin’ skills

It is popular in anti-testing circles to assert that students should not be compelled to acquire a set of skills prior to graduation. Students should be allowed to follow their passion. If they need to learn some skills, the task of teaching those skills should be the responsibility of employers, not that of educators.

Jeremiah Shinn, @booneshinn , articulates the position succinctly in a Tweet:

a tweet by @booneshinn hiring should not be reward but investment

I had been thinking about Shinn’s comment before I sat down to read The Wild Olive, a 1910 bestseller by Basil King. I hadn’t gotten far into the novel when I saw the controversy over whether employees should be expected to have skills predates No Child Left Behind.

Being reluctant to be hanged for murder, the protagonist, Nonnie Ford, flees the US with no definite destination in mind. He hears that in South America what was “needed most was neither men nor capital, but intelligence.”  When he meets a couple who are returning from Buenos Aires, Ford inquires if they have heard of the American firm of Stephens and Jarrott located there.

They have.

“Wool,” the Englishman grunted again. “Wool and wheat. Beastly brutes.”

“They were horribly impertinent to my husband,” the woman spoke up, with a kind of feverish eagerness to have her say. “They actually asked him if there was anything he could do. Fancy!”

The wife goes on to say, “We wanted people to know who we’d been before we got there; but that branch of knowledge isn’t cultivated.”

“Oh, there’s lots of cleverness among them,” the lady observed, before [Ford] had time to get away. “In fact, it’s one of the troubles with the country—for people like us. There’s too much competition in brains. My husband hit the right nail on the head when he said there was no chance for any beastly Johnny out there, unless he could use his bloomin’ mind—and for us that was out of the question.”

Ford never speaks to the couple again, but he realizes they are right: He has no chance unless he can use his bloomin’ mind.

Before he gets to Buenos Aires, Ford has started acquiring skills that, 18 months later, make him an attractive entry-level employee of the firm for which he wants to work.

As an employer and teacher, I’m decidedly in the employees-need-skills camp. I would like to believe that using their bloomin’ minds is not out of the question for high school graduates.

There’s still competition in brains.

People who have them ought to use them to acquire skills for the kind of work they want to pursue. That’s how people prove they are worthy of an employer’s investment.

I suspect my opinion will be greeted by many educators with a single word beginning with F.

And I suspect that word will not be “Fancy!”

3 thoughts on “Use your bloomin’ mind, get some bloomin’ skills

  1. Linda, I totally “freaking” agree (sorry, couldn’t resist an “F” word) ! As someone who teaches discipline-specific writing, I struggle a bit less in articulating to students why these skills are important b/c I get to point to actual, real-world, real-time, profession-specific examples. But I find when working with colleagues in more traditional writing circles that they want to be “guides” for students who are supposed to “find” their way through the material and “emerge” as empowered communicators. Interestingly, students are often frustrated by this model of instruction: if I train as an auto mechanic, I expect to learn how to work on cars, not merely about how to think about working on cars. After learning how to work on cars, I expect a job with someone who will continue my training but why would I expect an employer to have to train me to do the job for which I was hired? I really find that the so-called “technical writing” approach is sound pedagogy in any writing class. If we want students to graduate college able to think (which I break down as “analyze — interpret — synthesize/apply”) and communicate the output of their thoughts cogently (so another human being can understand and act on it), then why are we so afraid for holding them accountable for that skill? If writing teachers truly believe that the ability to write/communicate well is transformative, that it provides a foundation for every student in any profession or with any interest to succeed, then aren’t we being hypocritical when we dodge the responsibility of preparing them to use this SKILL?


    1. We’ve been singing off the same sheet music for a long time, Mickey. You know where I stand on this!

      I have to say, though, that since I’ve been asking Writing Points subscribers how they rate their preparation to teach nonfiction, I’m a bit more sympathetic toward the teachers who are not attempting to teach writing. The proportion of teachers who say they were poorly prepared or totally unprepared to teach nonfiction writing is huge. Add to that the fact that the typical English program centers on literature and pushes the idea that writing is an art for the talented few, it makes a kind of sense that teachers don’t attempt to teach writing.

      I do not, however, let my sympathy get in the way of my insistence that English teachers must teach writing.

      I also think they should learn to write to the standards expected of students.

      Keep fighting the good fight, Mickey.


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