The popular New York Times columnist writes:

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

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 is citing Oakeshott, whom I haven’t read, so let me be clear here that I’m reacting here not to the original source but to the above characterization, “the statistical knowledge you need to understand what market researchers do,” etc.

In all seriousness, I think statistics and biology are like many other skills, such speaking a foreign language, playing a musical instrument, or hitting a softball: they are hard to learn, but if you put in the time you can be ok at it. To say that “memorizing by rote” is the way people learn statistics, biology, languages, music, or athletic skills—-that’s just stupid. There are some things you do need to memorize, but learning is about making connections and practice practice practice practice practice.

It’s hard for me to believe Brooks actually believes something so dumb. I think what happens is that he has a smooth writing style and the words just come out sounding right, and he never goes back to see if they make sense. When I write for the Times, an editor reads my articles and goes in and makes changes, but maybe Brooks is too much of a big shot for that or maybe his editor gives Brooks’s columns a non-literal read. I can see why it makes sense to give Brooks free rein with his prose, in that I was amused by this sentence of his: “Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time?” That phrase “fornicate meaningfully” is just perfect.

One reason to suspect that Brooks does not believe that technical knowledge is “memorized by rote” is that he later writes that mooks are the solution: “as online education becomes more pervasive, universities can no longer primarily be in the business of transmitting technical knowledge. Online offerings from distant, star professors will just be too efficient.” But if you’re just memorizing, why the need for star professors? Anyone can read from a script and give you things to memorize.

Instead, Brooks wants universities to teach “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.” That’s fine too. Most of our students are not going to be great chefs or even great statisticians, but we’d like them to be the best they can be at what they do. But I don’t think they’re gonna get there if they think their technical knowledge is something to be memorized by rote.

P.S. Also, what’s with the slam on “bullet points”? Suppose I have four sentences to convey. In some contexts, they can work best in paragraph form, in other cases as a numbered list, in other cases as bullet points. I use all three, and I think Brooks is foolish to dismiss bullet points as a mode of communication. Just cos Dilbert’s boss gives bullet-ridden powerpoints, it doesn’t mean they’re always a bad idea.

P.P.S. This is a good place to link to a criticism by Jay Livingston of an earlier column where David Brooks tells just one side of the story (“Brooks’s tour did not include a stop to chat with Nechemaya Weberman. . . .”)

P.P.P.S. Please don’t take all this a criticism of Brooks. I recognize that he’s a busy man. He makes mistakes, but so do we all. To say that Brooks has written something stupid is not to say that he is stupid. I’ve written stupid things too. I just recommend that in the future he read his words more carefully, watching out for things that sound good but don’t make sense on closer inspection. I also recommend that he acknowledge the errors he’s published in the past. One reason for this is it will establish a personal incentive for him to be accurate. If he knows he will have to correct his errors and suffer the resulting (small) embarrassment, maybe he’ll be more motivated to avoid the errors in the first place.

P.P.P.P.S. I’ve added a paragraph above (“Brooks is citing Oakeshott, whom I haven’t read . . .”) to be clear that, when using the term “technical knowledge,” Brooks is referring to a particular meaning of the phrase. I still don’t think that “memorizing by rote” has anything much to do with understanding what market researchers do, etc., but I was mistaken in criticizing Brooks’s use of the term without making this clarification.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.