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.

 

Colleges teach workplace social skills

To help graduating seniors find jobs, colleges and universities are teaching the social skills of the workplace, reports the Hechinger Report.

After final exams are over, MIT students will return from their holiday break to experience something different from their usual studies—but almost as important.

It’s the university’s annual Charm School, offering instruction in everything from how to make a first impression to how to dress for work to which bread plate to use.

Other colleges have started teaching students how to make small talk, deal with conflict, show up on time, follow business etiquette, and communicate with co-workers.

Employers complain new hires don’t know how to act professionally. “This is a generation with an average of 241 social media ‘friends,’ but they have trouble communicating in person,” said Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

“Students don’t really know what’s meant by professional dress,” says MIT’s Hamlett. “Most students just roll out of bed in whatever it is they want to wear. There’s this ‘come as you are’ about being a college student.”

At Wake Forest University’s business school, master’s candidates are required to wear business attire to class, and be in the building from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

. . . MBA and law students at the University of Iowa learn table manners at an annual “etiquette dinner”—where to rest their silverware between courses and on which side of their settings to return their water glasses.

“Helicopter parents” haven’t taught their entitled children what the real world demands, says Aaron McDaniel, author of The Young Professional’s Guide to the Working World. He also blames universities for letting students slide by without working hard. In the workplace, McDaniel says, many graduates “expect that, just for showing up, they’ll get credit, just like they used to get at school.”

College will evaluate ‘soft skills’

“Soft skills,” such as punctuality and teamwork, will be factored into grades and “work readiness” certificates at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in North Carolina. Employers have complained that graduates have technical skills but lack knowledge of workplace norms.

That reminds me of yesterday’s post on a McKinsey report that found a mismatch between teachers’ estimation of their students’ skills and employers’ expectations. (No, that doesn’t mean teachers are “stupid,” as one comment writer insists. It means teachers  and employers aren’t communicating.)