Last week, I questioned the use of team assignments in the classroom on the NAS site. In my essay, I made reference to David Brooks’s argument on 1/17 for the necessity of strong people skills for life success. Brooks suggested that Amy Chua’s aggressive parenting style was sheltering her kids from learning important interpersonal skills that they can only acquire by interacting with other real human beings. To make this point, Brooks noted:
Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.
As Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, correctly pointed out to me, Brooks’s equating of a sleepover to musical instrument practice is questionable. Having well-developed people skills is certainly a necessity, but presenting those skills as mutually exclusive from intellectual pursuits sends a message that further lessons intellectual curiosity.
As a professor in a business school, I witness such people skills advocacy on a daily basis. Students are becoming conditioned to see their business degrees as nothing more than a ticket to the workplace; their experience and network matters more than their “book smarts.”
While one can make an argument about the questionable content of some courses (my discipline included), we must be careful about how the call for interpersonal skills is perceived. Brooks does backtrack a little at the end of his column in advocating multiple types of intelligences, but I wish he never made the analogy at all.
Being well-read may actually enhance the way others perceive someone.