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? 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?
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. (Brooks 4/4/2013 The Practical University)
I have written about such comments before (December 12, 2012). But there is too much in that vein from the featured New York Times columnists for me to flag them all. I’ll just note again that this may signal the beginning of the end of the incredible streak of expansion colleges and universities around the world have had since the WWII, the G.I. bill and equivalent programs around the world that transformed universities into institutions for the masses. The question universities, and those who make their lives in their ecosystems (particularly for faculty in most of the disciplines) has to be: what happens if potential students, their parents, and employers, discover that there are cheaper and more efficient ways of producing “human capital” than colleges?