The Partnership for 19th Century Skills

by Guest Blogger
July 6th, 2009

by Diane Ravitch

I for one have heard quite enough about the 21st century skills that are sweeping the nation. Now, for the first time, children will be taught to think critically (never heard a word about that in the 20th century, did you?), to work in groups (I remember getting a grade on that very skill when I was in third grade a century ago), to solve problems (a brand new idea in education), and so on.

Let me suggest that it is time to have done with this unnecessary conflict about 21st century skills. Let us agree that we need all those forenamed skills, plus lots others, in addition to a deep understanding of history, literature, the arts, geography, civics, the sciences, and foreign languages.

But allow me also to propose a new entity that will advance a different set of skills and understandings that are just as important as what are now called 21st century skills. I propose a Partnership for 19th Century Skills.

This partnership will advocate for such skills, values, and understandings as:

  • The love of learning
  • The pursuit of knowledge
  • The ability to think for oneself (individualism)
  • The ability to stand alone against the crowd (courage)
  • The ability to work persistently at a difficult task until it is finished (industriousness, self-discipline)
  • The ability to think through the consequences of one’s actions on others (respect for others)
  • The ability to consider the consequences of one’s actions on one’s well-being (self-respect)
  •  The recognition of higher ends than self-interest (honor)
  •  The ability to comport oneself appropriately in all situations (dignity)
  • The recognition that civilized society requires certain kinds of behavior by individuals and groups (good manners, civility)
  • The willingness to ask questions when puzzled (curiosity)
  • The readiness to dream about other worlds, other ways of doing things (imagination)
  •  The ability to believe that one can improve one’s life and the lives of others (optimism)
  • The ability to believe in principles larger than one’s own self-interest (idealism)
  •  The ability to speak well and write grammatically, using standard English

I invite readers to submit other 19th century skills that we should cultivate assiduously among the rising generation, on the belief that doing so will lead to happier lives and a better world.

(Ed’s Note:  Diane Ravitch wrote the above for the blog of Common Core, which advocates for comprehensive education in the liberal arts and sciences.  She is the organization’s co-chair.  It is published here as well, with her permission.)


  1. I love this. I have no problem with teaching the skills that are often touted as “21st century,” but I feel a lot is being forgotten in our desire to prepare students for the mysterious future. The focus on technology, in particular, bores me. Technology is great. It can be very useful. But it is not the point. Training students to use web tools etc. is empty of meaning if the major focus is not on the skills you list above.

    Comment by siobhan curious — July 6, 2009 @ 9:01 am

  2. Didn’t Neil Postman write a whole book about this called something like “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future”? It’s been awhile since I read it, but I remember thinking it was excellent (as are Postman’s other books).

    Comment by Crimson Wife — July 6, 2009 @ 11:10 am

  3. Postman immediately sprang into my mind too.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — July 6, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

  4. Interesting to think about the some of the “21st Century” people are out to accomplish. Are they trying to accomplish the same thing as you, even if they use some of the same words? Do they believe that education is the same thing as you? Do they believe the essence of education is the same as you do? Are they even in the same intellectual universe?

    As for me, I say no to all of the above.

    The “21st Century” thing seems to be, from what I’ve seen, a fancy name for progressivism, for applying John Dewey’s philosophy to education — for training students to think that truth is a social product, to think that truth is consensus; to think that there are no timeless, universal absolutes; to think that one cannot reason, but must just do “what works,” which cannot be known in advance and which has to be determined after acting.

    We need a return to reason in education. Not “reason” in any sense that might be mouthed by some of the modern educational theorists or by the intellectual progeny of Dewey, but reason in its true sense, in the tradition of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Sir Francis Bacon, William Harvey, Galileo, Newton, John Stuart Mill (in his Mill’s Methods), Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers, Michael Faraday, Ayn Rand. When education is essentially about training students to reason, and does so by means of teaching content (math, science, history, literature, language), there is no need for “band-aids” or “patch work” like “critical thinking.”

    Comment by Michael Gold — July 6, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

  5. Love Diane’s list.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 6, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

  6. Another 19th-century skill? Playing the piano.

    I’m joking, but only a little. The study of music was very much a part of a person’s education 150 years ago. It not only had some practical value (singing schools cropped up all over the South so that people could participate more fully in church services), but there was a kind of understanding that music did something good, though not quite definable for the mind and for the soul.

    What is tangible about the study of music is that you learn pretty quickly that you need to practice, that there are opportunities to work in groups towards a common end, that you learn aesthetics from the inside, and that it reinforces your understanding of simple math, particularly fractions.

    Comment by Julie Woodward — July 7, 2009 @ 9:50 am

  7. I recently read Lawrence A Cremin’s The Transformation of the School published in 1961 about the rise of progressivism in schools and why it died in the post war world. Obviously he wrote the epitaph too soon.

    According to the book there has never been a time in American history when public schools were willing and able to educate the masses to a high level of attainment. Some form of skills movement and orientation always seems to arise when you broaden the group to teaching content to those who aren’t being taught such information at home.

    Isn’t the 21st century skill movement merely a successor to the manual training emphasis of the early 20th and the life adjustment movement of the mid 20th?

    Comment by Mom of Three — July 7, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

  8. Good points everybody.

    I wonder if “old” will ever stop being a bad word in America. To say you support 19th Century values and skills makes you a laughing-stock or a contemptible reactionary. Yet many –maybe most –successful civilizations have revered tradition. Even Europe once held great esteem for ancient learning and methods. In 14th century Italy top thinkers were touting first century skills.

    Comment by Ben F — July 7, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  9. Julie Woodward’s comment about piano playing as a nineteenth century skill brings to mind some thoughts.

    At the start of the twentieth century if you wanted music you had to make it yourself. So people did. And so they took music instruction seriously. At the end of the twentieth century the situation was quite different. You could have music no matter how musically ignorant or untalented you were. In the twenty-first century that will be even more so. So, superficially at least, it might be argued that we don’t need to teach music any more. But I think that is very superficial. I agree with Julie that piano playing, and music in general, is a most valuable nineteenth century skill.

    Critical thinking is important, in any century. Does learning music add foster critical thinking? I don’t know, but maybe that is not the most relevant question. Disciplined thinking is also important, equally important to critical thinking in my humble opinion. Does learning music foster disciplined thinking? I think it does. What else fosters disciplined thinking?

    Is “focused thinking” different from critical thinking or disciplined thinking? I’m not sure. What else about thinking should we think about, of any century? Imaginative thinking? Aesthetic thinking? Philosophical thinking? Values thinking?

    The idea that the mind is a muscle and needs exercising has long been out of favor. But the idea that the mind needs extensive practice in different kinds of thinking is somewhat similar, and sounds pretty sensible to me.

    When I was young I think it was generally true that people thought of dance as something you learned, much like music. To do it right you had to learn the steps and practice, even take lessons. A little later, probably in the sixties, I think that changed. Dancing, at least popular dancing, was not something you learned. You just got out on the floor and did it. Is this good? Is this bad? Does dance, or learning to dance, have anything at all to do with thinking? Is it valuable for disciplined thinking? Are athletics valuable for disciplined thinking? Maybe dance brings in disciplined thinking, aesthetic thinking, social thinking, and somatic thinking.

    When I was in elementary school I realized I could not draw, and was quite aware that a few of my classmates could. Later in life I realized that most people are like me. They can’t draw either. But I wish I could draw. Was drawing a nineteenth century skill? Or were most people as bad at drawing then as they are now?

    Can drawing be taught? Over the years I realized that we did a lot of art in elementary school, but I don’t think we were ever taught art, especially drawing. I know nothing about art or teaching art, especially drawing, but I just have a intuitive feeling that it can be taught. Could we make that a twenty-first century skill in some substantial way? (And I don’t mean in some syrupy draw-your-feelings way.)

    In talking about various types of thinking I do not mean to imply that the justification of any subject has to be its contribution to thinking. Music is its own reward. Being able to draw is its own reward. But their possible contributions to thinking is still important to consider.

    I realize I’m rambling, but I think it might be worthwhile to give some critical thought to these and related questions.

    Comment by Brian Rude — July 7, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  10. I love Diane’s post and the comments. So much to think about here.

    I have a few more favorites:

    The ability to bear disappointment and hardship with grace (equanimity)

    Tbe recognition of one’s own weaknesses (humility)

    The ability to rejoice and suffer with others (empathy)

    The ability to stay true to one’s principles and nature (integrity)

    In high school I took a course on history and philosophy of religion. We kept coming back to the same idea: that even when the world breaks down and seems to lose its meaning, each person has a choice: to maintain dignity and hope or to abandon them. We saw this choice reflected in the epic of Gilgamesh and in the writings of Elie Wiesel. We understood that we could affirm meaning in our lives (or not), no matter what happened to us, be it trivial or devastating.

    I don’t think that idea is lost today. But the subject doesn’t seem to come up very often. There is such obsession with external success that young people (and people of all ages) rarely take the opportunity to look at their fundamental choices.

    Success is a fine thing. But we have to ask: Success at what? There are many kinds, and much of it may hinge on how we treat each others and do the things we love. It may require that we make good choices, not good guesses.

    A list like this reminds me that we can still do this, at any time.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 7, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

  11. You have posted very good post, its totally true, there are many factors to improve it, as a responsible person its our duty to do some thing which is helpful to improve our society, and i think there should be some training programs for Character Education .

    Comment by Character Education — July 17, 2009 @ 5:23 am

  12. Really very good, before a long time ago, i simply love your posts and i have a big list for postman s books, whatever he writs its just amazing, and for me its not only a book but also a way where you can learn, enjoy, share and remember many things, and simply its a way to improve Character Education .

    Comment by Character Education — July 17, 2009 @ 5:30 am

  13. Ms. Ravitch,

    I have been a teacher in public schools for 21 years, have read your book, “Left Back,” and enjoyed it immensely. I am also a great fan, for lack of a better word, of E.D. Hirsch Jr’s. work, having read “Cultural Literacy,” and “The Schools We Need (and Why We Don’t Have Them).

    Recently I read a policy analysis entitled, “Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards” by a fellow named Neal McClusky put out by The Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank. In this paper, Mr. McClusky quotes you several times and, in my opinion, makes several good points concerning national standards. My question is: Have you ever read this policy analysis and, if so, what is your opinion of it? If you have not, it is available by going to the following address: .

    Any feedback you or any of the folks on this blog could give me opinionwise on this policy analysis,(which is, admittedly, rather long and detailed) would be helpful. I just have a long standing curiosity about the problems I see daily as a classroom teacher concerning many students’ lack of knowledge, many parents who really don’t seem too worried about it, (except for how it impacts their child’s report card grades), and many administrators whom, with the exception of standardized test scores of course, pretty much seem to feel the same way. Thank you.

    Comment by shill — February 20, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  14. I understand that in Asia music education is part of the curriculum. There are keyboards in the classromm at each desk and practicing is done in class in a group — every day — and not left to be done (or not done) at home. They also teach solfege, a cumulative skill, which you can’t learn unless you do it every day. It’s rote work, probably, but rote work can be more fun when you do it together.

    Music is good for all kinds of things and helps in many ways with all kinds of study. It has the same properties as language and mathematics == and also physical coordination.

    Comment by MBAllen — February 28, 2010 @ 9:56 am

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