A reimagined university

As a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania (one of the prestigious Ivies), “I realized that what the universities are supposed to be is not what they are. That the concept of universities taking great raw material and teaching how it can have positive impact in the world is gone.” Undergraduates “take some random classes, settle on a major and ‘oh yeah, you’re going to pick up critical thinking in the process by accident.’” Ben Nelson quoted in this Wall Street Journal article entitled “The Man Who Would Overthrow Harvard.”

Ben Nelson is the moving force behind the Minerva Project, which touts itself as the first elite American university to open in 100 years. The concept is simple and old: “We want to teach you how to think.” Its methods are fresh and innovative.

Admission requirements will be “extraordinary high,” and the student body is expected to be highly international, notwithstanding the school’s base in California. Nelson promises to deliver a learning experience unlike any other available to students today.

There will be no introductory courses. Nelson doesn’t believe universities should waste time and charge for the dissemination of basic knowledge that is available to students for free from a multitude of other sources.

Students will begin their educational journey in San Francisco and then move from city to city each semester in cohorts of about 150, to places like São Paulo, London and Singapore. Small, discussion-heavy seminars will be the order of the day.

One of the roadblocks this new venture encountered was the government sanctioned cartel system that protects established institutions from new entrants (the subject of this earlier post). Fortunately, an alliance with an existing accredited institution has overcome this obstacle.

It’s too soon to tell what may come of this reinvented university. But if I were a bright, highly motivated young person who was interested in a world-class education that would transcend national borders, one that would make better use of my time and challenge me to become a better thinker in ways unbound from the constraining (and oft-times ineffective) methods of traditional universities, then I’d certainly check out Minerva. Here is the link to its website.

Nelson’s goal is to replace Harvard. He has a long way to go. But don’t assume it can’t be done. The old model of higher ed is failing us. It’s nice to see someone pursuing a bold, audacious plan to shake things up. In the process, a great university may be born.

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