English as a Life Skill: Strategy and Tactics

There was a training day at OISE Cambridge yesterday, on teaching English as a life skill (or so I am told; I confess I deployed a life skill, and bunked off).

What is a life skill, exactly?

Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, argues that life skills are no more than the minor infractions, or petty resistances, by means of which we negotiate the systems of control laid down for us by the powerful. He explains this in terms of strategy and tactics: the mighty (governments, corporations, legal systems, teachers, etc.) establish strategic forms of control: rules of law, codes of best practice, company handbooks, contracts, security checks, productivity targets, grammar tests, and so on. The individual, with a sort of non-compliant instinct or habit of mind, negotiates these strategic forms through tactical evasion: corner-cutting, absenteeism, smoke-breaks, irony, insolence, and so on. The schoolchild wears a tie, but does so with the knot tied too tight, or too loose; people walking through the city take short-cuts, carve desire-lines into the grass; teachers smuggle coffee up to the first floor; their students spend time texting under the table. It is, according to de Certeau, a sort of creative, opportunistic, resistance.

I suppose that life skills need not all derive from a back-of-the-bus mentality, nor do they all lie in the domain of the Artful Dodger. One important life skill, for example, whether for teacher or student, citizen or employee, might be learning to manage this largely unconscious resistance. However, as Fagin says, once in a while you have to pick the odd pocket, for your peace of mind.


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