Bob Clary, from Webucator, contacted me recently with a suggestion to write a post on skills that are important and/or necessary for success in life as a part of their ‘Most Marketable Skill Campaign’. First of all, I have to be honest and say that I know very little about Webucator other than that they offer training programs on a variety of microsoft products, and admittedly, knowing how to use Microsoft Office is fairly important in the modern workplace. If you aren’t familiar with word-processing programs, spreadsheets, and powerpoint (at least) then a lot of jobs are going to be closed to you. However, while these are very important practical skills, I don’t think that these are the skills that will actually get you ahead in life. I think that focusing on these skills without focusing on some fundamental skills first is akin to building a house without ever laying a foundation. The foundation may not look like much on its own, but it’s fairly important to keeping the house intact. With that in mind, I’d like to focus on three skills that I think are 1) interconnected, 2) often over-looked in modern education, and 3) provide a strong foundation for any direction in which you wish to build your life.
For the purposes of this post I’m going to provide my own general definitions of these three skills, instead of relying on formal definitions. The skills I have in mind are these: hermeneutics, which we will define as the ability to correctly interpret what a source is trying to say and determine the general quality of that source; logic, which we will define as the ability critically analyze a claim and reach a rationally justifiable conclusion; and rhetoric, which we will define as the ability to form a meaningful and persuasive argument for a given claim. So why are these skills important?
We are bombarded with sources providing a wide variety of claims in a wide variety of different ways. From books to television shows, movies, music, commercials, billboards, marketing calls, conversations with friends, speeches, sermons etc. the modern world has thousands of ways to give us messages, and that isn’t even counting the internet and all of the web-pages you browse, pop-up and non-pop-up ads, etc that you see on a daily basis. Consider an extreme case: let us posit that Paul is reading his favorite blog one day and sees a pop-up ad for a retail specialist. In an extreme misinterpretation of the ad Paul decides that they are offering free houses and decides that he would very much like to own a house, and would very much like not to have to pay a hundred thousand dollars in order to do so, thank you very much. Paul makes an appointment with the individual and, upon meeting with a real estate agent Paul irrationally holds to his belief that the add said the agency was offering free houses, even though the sales agent tells him otherwise. Paul signs a contract for a $400,000 house with mortgage payments that he can’t possibly afford (we’ll say this was before the 2008 crash) under the concrete belief that he will never have to pay. Does this sound impossible to you? Well, first, if you’d spoken to some of the people I’ve had to deal with through various jobs you might not think so. However, I agree that it is a very unlikely scenario. However, it does serve to illustrate a point: with even basic hermeneutical and logical skills Paul could have avoided signing a mortgage agreement that he could never afford.
However, let’s take a slightly more realistic example: the pastor of Holy Messiah Baptist Church is reading his bible one day and comes across a passage in Proverbs that tells him that wine is a brawler, and beer a mocker. This pastor puts together a sermon on the evils of alcohol and how it is a hell-bounding sin to imbibe even the smallest amount of this vile substance, except for Heineken of course because that’s his favorite beer. This pastor’s sermon fires up his congregation to end the evil reign of alcohol in their town by preaching about the evils of alcohol outside of the brewery (it’s a Miller plant) on the last Saturday night of every month. This seems like a much more likely scenario. In fact, it sounds like Christian behavior that I’ve seen several times in several different places. First, the Bible says nothing about alcohol being a sin. It does clearly warn about the dangers of the overuse of alcohol, but it never provides a command to avoid any contact with alcohol. Second, the pastor’s exemption of Heineken on the basis of his preference is in clear violation of the rest of his message. This is blatant hypocrisy at its worst. Lastly, even assuming the truth of the first two claims: 1) that contact with alcohol is sinful, and 2) that Heineken is an exception to this rule, picketing a brewery once a month is unlikely to have any significant effect on the amount of alcohol in your town.
In this much more realistic example we can see clear evidence of the importance of these three skills. If you cannot correctly interpret what a source said, then you cannot correctly use or respond to that source. For instance, let us assume that Paula is in a college class and, upon reading her syllabus, she finds that she must write a 750 word journal article review on a topic of her choice. Instead of correctly interpreting this information, Paula assumes that this means she needs to write a 500 word essay on a topic of her choice, and so decides to write an essay about why she thinks abortion is bad. Paula is surprised when her paper is returned with a very low F and goes to the instructor only to discover that she had not, in fact, completed the assignment, which was a 750 word journal article review. I honestly can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this happen in one of my classes. At the most basic level learning to correctly interpret what a source is trying to tell you is incredibly important.
Further, if you cannot critically assess and analyze data then you are likely to reach wildly incorrect conclusions. For instance, let us assume that John decides to read an article about Hate Speech. In reading the article John is convinced that Hate Speech is very, very bad and comes to the conclusion that it must be banned. John then writes a paper arguing that while Free Speech is a fundamentally important right that must absolutely be protected and cannot be limited in any way, hate speech has to be banned because it is a pernicious evil. John’s lack of logical faculties has allowed him to fail to realize that banning hate speech in and of itself requires the limiting of free speech. John’s paper has proposed two mutually exclusive conclusions: 1) that free speech must not be limited, and 2) that hate speech must be banned. Again, this is something that I’ve seen in my classes many times.
Lastly, without rhetoric it ultimately doesn’t matter how well you understand a source or how strong your logic is. If no one will listen to you, you understanding is of very little use. Again, let use assume that Paula has found a truly perfect solution to the issue of over-crowding in prisons. This hypothetical solution actually will solve the problem while maintaining the moral strength of the nation, staying within budget, and protecting the citizenry. Paula then stands out in front of the nearest state penitentiary with a sign that reads: Solution Found, End Over-Crowding NOW! It is unlikely that Paula’s solution will ever be heard by anyone with the authority to put it into practice, much less be taken seriously. Though Paula has a perfect solution, her lack of rhetorical ability has led her to provide an unpersuasive argument and thus her solution will never be put into practice.
I honestly cannot think of any skills that are more necessary to a meaningful, successful life that the combination of hermeneutics, logic, and rhetoric. These three skills, when taken together, will provide a sturdy foundation for growth in any path that you wish to pursue.