David Brooks asked the right question and made bold move toward answering it in his recent column in the Times, “A Practical University” -- http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/opinion/Brooks-The-Practical-University.html?ref=davidbrooks&_r=0 .
His answer to the question “What is a University For?” combines some thinking about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with Michael Oakeshott’s distinction between technical 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. “ It’s like a cookbook, Brooks adds. MOOCs, he suggests, do as well as the standard lecture in transmitting such knowledge -- which isn’t saying much since there is ample evidence that the “standard” lecture is not very good at that.
That’s clear enough, maybe even right. But what is this “practical” knowledge? The term is far from transparent, but Brooks’ gets off to a good start in explaining what he means, “ 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. “ But then the slippery slope, for the word seems to make it all-too-easy to equate education with the acquisition of skills useful “ 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. “
What would have happened, I wonder, if instead of turning to a career manual Brooks had at this point turned his Chicago education to the beginning of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where praxis is very much in view:
…in every praxis and every moral choice it [The Good] is the goal. For it is on account of this that people do whatever else they do. So if there is something that is the goal of all practice, this will be the Practicable Good. (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics I. 1097 a 20 ff.)
Or Brooks might have turned in another direction: Practice is putting into action a set of commitments, moral principles, societal concerns, knowledge. The agent may or not be aware of this, may or may not be making a rational choice, may or may not have worth-while principles upon which action is based, but practice enacts ideas about what one values. A ‘practical’ education, then, seeks to clarify the bases upon which one acts. That requires study of a sort that Brooks himself must have experienced, but, like so many of us, loses sight of in the blur of deadlines, events, career, the quest for fame and fortune. These studies might