“The end of education is to see men made whole, both in competence and in conscience” (John S. Dickey).
TO BE COMPETENT IS TO BE QUALIFIED TO DO A JOB — ABLE TO COMPLETE THE TASK SKILLFULLY. The competent are those who can be trusted to carry out a responsibility in an adept manner.
It should go without saying (but these days we often forget) that competence must always be governed by conscience. Not everything that can be done should be done, and the fact that we have the ability to do something is often dangerous if we don’t have the moral judgment to evaluate what we’re doing. John S. Dickey, who said that the goal of education is to see us “made whole, both in competence and in conscience,” also said that “to create the power of competence without creating a corresponding direction to guide the use of that power is bad education.” So know-how without know-why is only half an education. Allan Bloom, who has written trenchantly on these matters, observed that fathers and mothers “have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise — specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine.”
What we should aim for are the twin towers of character (who we are in our principles) and competence (what we can do in our practice). When these two are combined, we have the makings of a real person. It’s the blending of these that should be our goal.
But if competence without conscience is dangerous, conscience without competence is not much good either. Being honorable people and having good intentions will not suffice. We’ll have to gain some actual skills if we want to make a worthy contribution to the world. And when we learn how to do some things the world needs to have done, we give a great gift to all the people who care about us.
In this life, we need the humility to recognize our limitations. But we also need the courage to pursue competence in the work that’s within our reach. Rather than settle for mediocrity, or spin our wheels in frivolous pastimes, we’d do better to invest in the mastery of some solid skills. Expertise is a gift that keeps on giving for a very long time.
“Superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer” (William Shakespeare).