School Daze

David Brooks writes about MOOCs and the college experience. After some plausible speculations:

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?

David decides to get real - or maybe real-er:

My own stab at an answer would be that universities are places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is the sort of knowledge you need to understand a task — the statistical knowledge you need to understand what market researchers do, the biological knowledge you need to grasp the basics of what nurses do.

Technical knowledge is like the recipes in a cookbook. It is formulas telling you roughly what is to be done. It is reducible to rules and directions. It’s the sort of knowledge that can be captured in lectures and bullet points and memorized by rote.

By this time anybody who has studied a technical subject, whether Physics or French Horn, has probably concluded that David Brooks is an idiot who acquired both his practical and technical knowledge at the Applebee's salad bar. But let's not stop here. About that practical knowledge:

Think about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Put aside the debate about the challenges facing women in society. Focus on the tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: 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.

It's true that those skills are dissapointingly rare. Of course I think the best place to learn them is around the family dinner table, or maybe in kindergarten. I'm afraid my college was not big on teaching them.

Brooks then segues to Ben Nelson's Minerva project - a for profit start-up that hopes to deliver an Ivy League education at half the cost. I'm skeptical, but their faculty picture is impressive. I wonder how they got Dick to agree to come back to teaching.


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