Richard Querin has a post up discussing the balance between "thinking"--the theory side--and "doing"--the practical side, when it comes to university educations. Taking a stand, he comes squarely down in the middle (as do I).
It seems that the view of universities as commercial enterprises, with a "customer" to satisfy--the student--is not limited to Small Mountain University. There's a certain amount of grumpage amongst the professorati at SMU about the current approach; they feel that the students are being catered to by dumbing down curricula, by snazzing and jazzing up the core courses, and that the view of education as a goal in and of itself is disappearing. Nowadays, the education is marketed as a means to an end: that lucrative job, be it in business or genetic engineering or construction.
Richard points out that the year he spent working in construction was much more valuable to him, as an engineer, than most of his degree work.
Yet, at the same time, I have to sing the praise of the theoretical.
My degree from Cal State Hayward was in computer science, not computer information systems. Typically, a CIS degree comes from the business school at a college or university, while the CS degree comes from the math department. So the CS degree includes an awful lot more theoretical courses, while the CIS degree focuses on real-world applications and includes (ugh!) economics and accounting.
Currently, I wist after some background in accounting; I am working on interfaces with our accounting system, and when the accountants talk I am lost in a jungle of double-entry bookkeeping, trying to figure out which bucket which dollars should be dumped into.
On the other hand, shortly after leaving school with my brand-new degree still hot off the press, I discovered the value of some of that "theoretical" stuff I had been learning.
I was on a small team working on a (then) very cutting-edge on-line backup system. One member of our team was a guy who had worked for many years in an auto manufacturer's IT department, programming their accounting system. Unsatisfied with the money he was making in our little company, he moved on, and I took over some of the user interface he had been working on.
One piece was a listing of files that had been uploaded, sorted alphabetically by name. Previous programmer had tested it out and all worked hunky-dory--until we started working with hundreds of filenames. Then, suddenly, the screen started working slower and slower and slower.
What on earth was going on?
I delved into it. Carefully stepping through the code, I found that the place where it bogged down was in the sorting routine. So I took a look.
Now, I'm not going to bore you with techie talk here, but the least efficient type of computer code to sort anything is called a "bubble sort". It's also the most obvious, and also extremely easy to code. There it was, turning that display screen slow as molasses. Oh, it worked just fine on 10 lines of test data...but when confronted with more, it got progressively slower and slower.
In one of my theoretical courses, we spent eight weeks examining different sorting algorithms. Our professors beat "don't use 'bubble sort'!" into our heads.
So there I was, fresh out of college, faced with code that someone who had been working for 20+ years had written, and realizing that--ohmigosh--that theoretical hooey actually meant something, and was useful.
I pulled out my textbook with the four chapters on sorting algorithms (yes!) and mathematical discussions of the efficiency of each one, dived in, selected one that had a much higher efficiency rating, coded it in, and suddenly that screen--that had bogged down on a mere one hundred items to sort--ran lickity-split on thousands of items.
At the same time, I've learned many things on the job that were never covered in my courses.
So, like Richard, I come down squarely in favor of both thinking and doing, theoretical and practical when it comes to college coursework. But how do you convince students--who see themselves as "customers"--that, yes, the boring theoretical stuff can also be important? Because they've been sold on the idea that Biology Is Fun--so much so that it's hard to realize that you need to learn the basics, boring as they are, first.
While talking with one of the other moms waiting outside the ballet class, she and I heard some kid talking about math homework. She turned to me and said, "Y'know, I always heard people asking, 'What good is this stuff? Am I ever going to use it?' And I just think--I use it. Every. Day."
I do too. But it's hard to say how, when it's woven into what I do all the time so much that it becomes unconscious. The same with my theoretical courses--I realize that I use bits and pieces from them all the time in my everyday work.