Put your mind to work

Knowledge alone won’t change the world. For that, you need an app.

Photo/Mike Lovett

Benjamin Gomes-Casseres ’76

The late Yogi Berra, that great philosopher of baseball and life, said, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

You know the problem: Ideas are cheap, as they say in Silicon Valley. No matter how clever a plan is, it often doesn’t work in the real world.

As I prepare to celebrate my 40th Reunion at Brandeis, it feels as if this is one lesson that I learned after Brandeis. In today’s world, our graduates will need to learn this lesson fast, even if we didn’t always teach it to them.

In the 1960s, the value of a scholar’s work was measured in part by its “relevance” to the burning issues of the day. Over time, though, our attitudes toward marrying theory and practice have changed. Today, scholars and researchers, often opting for rigor over relevance, can build a career without ever letting their ideas leave the ivory tower.

But at what cost? The world is full of tough problems. It’s a cop-out to claim that all knowledge will ultimately have a positive impact. It is our job to help this process along by shaping how our ideas can be put to work in the real world.

How do we bridge the gap between theory and practice? How can ideas from research “add value” to the process of making daily decisions and setting long-term policies that affect people’s lives? How can we help students make a difference after they have mastered theories and textbooks? Fortunately, making a difference in society is in the DNA of Brandeis. It’s what drew me to this university as a student and brought me back as a teacher.

Louis Brandeis himself shows us how ideas can be used to change the world. He is best known as a wise Supreme Court justice who developed powerful legal theories in support of social justice and individual rights. But he got to the Supreme Court only after many years of practicing law in Boston. He represented corporations, laborers and small businesses. He was a man of practice.

Before Brandeis joined the high court, he pioneered a style of legal reasoning that became known as the Brandeis Brief, a deep analysis that uses facts and figures to test legal principles against their likely social impact. He believed cases should be decided not primarily by legal theory but by the effects a decision would have on people.

Steve Jobs once said, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” His comment is often taken as affirmation that a liberal-arts education will help students succeed in the real world. There is truth to that interpretation, but it is not the whole story. Steve Jobs was an engineer, too.

Studies in the liberal arts, the humanities and the sciences are often not enough by themselves. We sometimes need to develop an application — an app — that goes with our mind’s work.

I’m not talking here about a piece of software that will let a computer solve a practical problem, from crunching numbers to hailing a ride. When I say “app,” I mean a practical way of using critical thinking to help others. The Brandeis Brief, for example, is a lawyer’s app that bolsters an argument in court.

In some fields, apps are easy to find. Medicine is an app of the life sciences. Business and public policy are apps of economic thinking. Architecture and engineering are apps of physics. These applications are a combination of excellent scholarship and effective practice.

Such apps are popular among students today — just look at the demand for business courses at Brandeis. But it is not just business, medicine and engineering that help students apply critical thinking to fields of practice. If we think that — and especially if our students think that — we will shortchange the value of the other liberal arts and sciences. There are apps in every field of study, where excellent scholarship can be put to work in practice. Our best minds must not only develop new ideas but must also help engineer their applications.

In his 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that the American scholar did not just dwell in books but was also engaged with applying ideas to practice. He said, “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? … They are for nothing but to inspire. … One must be an inventor to read well.”

Every year, my wish for my students is that they invent their own personal “killer app,” an application that is uniquely useful and powerful. I don’t just mean I hope they get a good job. I hope they commit themselves to improving the world around them in practical ways.

We have seen how killer apps can revolutionize the world. I am convinced research and teaching can do the same. Steve Jobs had it right, and even resolved Yogi Berra’s conundrum: Yes, theory and practice are different, but their marriage makes our work sing.

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