The Practical University

In the New York Times Opinion Pages on 4 April 2013, I came across “The Practical University,” an op-ed piece by David Brooks.  He opens the column with an interesting assertion:

The best part of the rise of online education is that it forces us to ask: What is a university for?

He then goes on to talk about two types of knowledge students currently acquire (in varying degrees) at universities:  technical knowledge and practical knowledge.  Brooks describes the two types like this:

  • 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.”
  • Practical knowledge is not about 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.

As you might imagine, Brooks’ column generated a lot of discussion on the New York Times site, so I thought it would make for an interesting “discussion prompt” in the Commission.  If you have comments on the role of online education, either in the classroom and / or in advising, Brooks’ differentiation of technical and practical knowledge and / or the assertions he makes in his column regarding the role of online education in universities, I invite you to share them in the comments or on the Commission listserve.  If you haven’t yet subscribed to the Commission list, you’ll find directions for doing so here.

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