“Are universities mostly sorting devices to separate smart and hard-working high school students from their less-able fellows so that employers can more easily identify them?” asks New York Times columnist David Brooks in The Practical University. “Are universities factories for the dissemination of job skills? Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time?”
Universities teach technical and practical knowledge, he decides.
Technical knowledge — how to do things — can be transmitted just as well online as in a standard lecture class, he writes. The online courses are going to get better in the next few years, putting lecturers out of business. Universities will have to concentrate on practical knowledge, “not what you do but how you do it.”
It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.
In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg describes how to succeed in the workplace.
. . . the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.
Students can learn practical skills at a university, “through student activities, through the living examples of their professors and also in seminars,” Brooks believes.
Is this really the university’s strong suit? I learned these skills at the family dinner table and on the job, especially in my years on a newspaper editorial board.