Brooks’ “Practical University”

In his latest New York Times editorial, David Brooks encourages online education companies to impart not only technical knowledge but also what he calls “practical knowledge.” The “practical [online] university” of the future, he claims, should not only teach students what to do, i.e. technical skills, but also how to apply those skills in a practical setting, i.e. the modern corporate workplace. In order to do this, online schools must try to emulate the quintessential teaching forum of offline universities, the discussion seminar, which centers on communication:

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.

That sounds reasonable enough, even if it leaves unanswered the question of who does the evaluating (if the non-profit enterprise edX is successful, for example, it might be artificial intelligence). But Brooks’ suggestion proceeds from a highly problematic premise: that the span of knowledge encompassed by academia can be reduced to the distinction between technical and practical knowledge. Without drifting too far into the realm of epistemology,The Industrious Student (ca. 1740) it is clear that these kinds of knowledge are in fact just two sides of the same coin. Learning technical skills and then how to apply them fits squarely in the category of formal rationality, also known as instrumental reason. When you have a task to accomplish — e.g. replacing a light bulb, or succeeding in the modern workplace — instrumental reason is the way of determining the most efficient means of achieving that end. What instrumental reason does not tell you is why that task is worth achieving at all. What is the measure of success in the modern workplace, for example? What are the rules and preconditions for modern economic behavior, and how did they come about? Is the modern economy best suited to our needs? Are there any alternatives? For questions like these we need a different sort of reason, one that apparently hasn’t occurred to Brooks. Substantive reason (I’m using Max Weber’s terms) concerns worldviews. It is value-oriented, not task-oriented. And it also concerns a pesky human capacity that “offline” universities (I hesitate to call them “real” universities) still teach best: critical judgment. The knowledge that results from substantive reason can indeed become practical once it is applied to a specific task (e.g. regulating the economy through political legislation), but the first step is recognizing what is right and wrong, what should and should not be, and why we think the way we do (i.e. self-critique). This is the domain of substantive reason and, I would argue, of university teaching and scholarship.

My critique of Brooks’ editorial may sound rather philosophical. But I imagine that Brooks would defend himself philosophically. At one point he refers to “practical-moral” knowledge, which suggests that something deeper lies behind his choice of words. The fact that he prefers to interpret the role of universities in terms of technical skills and their practical application, however, is in perfect accord with a complacent, affirmative stance vis-à-vis the status quo, economic or otherwise. Brooks is of course a public intellectual with a conservative tilt. At risk of betraying my own political bias, I would argue emphatically that the role of the university in today’s society is not the affirmation and preservation of the existing order. Universities are old institutions. They simultaneously preserve the antiquated medieval notion of an intellectual-clerical elite and offer a continuous re-definition of what’s new: new scholarship, new research, new ideas, new students and faculty, etc. Both of these dimensions — the very old and the very new — give universities a quality that fits very uncomfortably in the modern capitalist economy, which is rather one-dimensional in its definition of human goals (wealth and material prosperity).

I am not opposed to online education. I welcome it. And while I applaud any effort by online educators to complement their usual offerings of lecture recordings and digital course materials with actual discussion and interaction in a seminar format, this sort of technical solution must not lose sight of the role that institutions of higher learning play in our communities and society at large, a society that cannot be reduced to the “modern economy” or the “capitalist marketplace,” as important as those dimensions are. What online educators should try to create is not the “practical university” à la Brooks, but simply the university as it exists (ideally) offline: an institution that embraces all kinds of human knowledge, that values the humanities and social sciences alongside the natural sciences, that encourages private and public enlightenment, and that inspires future generations to ask hard questions of the sort that Gauguin once portrayed in a beautiful Tahiti triptych: where do we come from? what are we? where are we going? Online or offline, universities are worth defending for their general cultivation of human diversity and possibility, even if they cost too much and don’t get students jobs. It seems to me that “practical knowledge” is insufficient to solve those problems too.

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