David Brooks on “The Practical University”

In The Practical University David Brooks asks “What is a university for?” David suggests that the high level answer is “places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge … called technical knowledge and practical knowledge.” 

We may find that mastery of technical knowledge can be enhanced by leveraging the free offerings from online innovators like Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity. But it is not clear how far Udacity can go on the practical knowledge branch of the learning tree. What if we merged the face-to-face setting of a live-in residential college with adaptive learning software innovation and the real-time online presence of the world’s best teachers? As I understand it, that is the vision of the Minerva Project.

David Brooks ends his op-ed with these thoughts:

Let’s focus on practical wisdom in the modern workplace.

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.

These skills are practical knowledge. Anybody who works in a modern office knows that they are surprisingly rare. But students can learn these skills at a university, through student activities, through the living examples of their professors and also in seminars.

Nelson’s venture, Minerva, uses technology to double down on seminars. Minerva is a well-financed, audacious effort to use technological advances to create an elite university at a much lower cost. I don’t know if Minerva will work or not, but Nelson is surely right to focus on the marriage of technology and seminars.

The problem with the current seminars is that it’s really hard to know what anybody gets out of them. The conversations might be lively, but they flow by so fast you feel as if you’re missing important points and exchanges.

The goal should be to use technology to take a free-form seminar and turn it into a deliberate seminar (I’m borrowing Anders Ericsson’s definition of deliberate practice). Seminars could be recorded with video-cameras, and exchanges could be reviewed and analyzed to pick apart how a disagreement was handled and how a debate was conducted. Episodes in one seminar could be replayed for another. Students could be assessed, and their seminar skills could be tracked over time.

So far, most of the talk about online education has been on technology and lectures, but the important challenge is technology and seminars. So far, the discussion is mostly about technical knowledge, but the future of the universities is in practical knowledge.

More on the Minerva Project and other innovations in education here.

One thought on “David Brooks on “The Practical University”

  1. This is basically a discussion of people skills. I agree that people skills can be learned. To a certain degree, people learn people skills by being raised in functional families, but not everyone is raised in a functional family. Even if they are raised in functional families, there are additional people skills that it would be helpful to learn.

    Observant people can learn people skills very well by observing over a period of years. But not everyone is sufficiently observant and it would be helpful to learn people skills more quickly than is possible simply from casual observation.

    Surely it would be a good thing to teach people skills in an efficient manner; everyone could profit from that. It would be helpful for people in all walks of life. But as helpful as people skills are, it is also important to learn to think clearly, rationally, and objectively. Ways to teach that effectively should also be devised.

    If everyone had good people skills and were able to think clearly, rationally, and objectively, surely our world would be a better place in which to live.

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