The practical university

“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.


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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    High school and University were not designed with the same goals in mind.

    If they now serve the same functions (or just different stages in the same process) then one of them is not being “used” correctly, and will undoubtedly require substantial reorganization to adopt it to its new role.

  2. I think that it depends on what you study. As a biochem major, I never had a semester without a lab and usually had at least 2. One memorable semester involved being in different labs 3 afternoons/week. We also did a senior research project in a lab, under the supervision of a professor, and we went to lab meetings with the grad students. I don’t think that there is any way to get that kind of experience online, although I know that not all college students are fortunate enough to get that level of hands-on guidance.

    When I taught at a CC, they had online biology classes and labs, and the students only came to the lab for the practicals at the end. They did fine on the problem-solving questions, but none of them got the hands-on parts (focusing a microscope, etc). Maybe at some point technology will improve simulations, but until then students in certain fields are going to need to be taught how to use the equipment that they’ll be expected to use.

  3. cranberry says:

    Brooks and Sandberg describe workplace skills, perhaps best imparted through apprenticeships. The unpaid internships of today may be the beginnings of a modern apprentice system.

    Universities don’t exist to train apprentices. When they were first invented, a young person could sign up for an apprenticeship directly. You won’t save universities by arguing they’re good for apprenticeships, because unpaid internships would be better (and cheaper, even unpaid!) ways to acquire the knowledge.

    Universities should teach students to research, analyse, think, converse, debate, and defend ideas. The best universities gather people at similar intellectual levels, which works well to practice intellectual skills. The purpose of the university may well be the late night dorm conversations.