If you had seen the first draft of the essay I turned in for the Baffler, you would have seen two distinct arguments. The first was the argument about being a for-profit cutting into their quest for prestige. That’s entirely intact in the final version. Indeed, thanks to great editing, it is expressed much better than the way I wrote it originally.
The second was an argument about how creepy it is to be obsessed with achieving elite status in the first place. While you can still see a whiff of that second argument in the final essay, I thought I’d write a little more about it here by popular demand.
Ben Nelson, the Minerva CEO, has exhibited an extraordinary amount of status anxiety in the articles I’ve read about the project going back to its inception. Take, for example, this quote that opens a 2012 article on the Minerva Project in the MIT Technology Review:
“Harvard, by many measures the most prestigious college in the U.S., has been at it for nearly 400 years. Ben Nelson, founder of an online education startup called the Minerva Project, says he can do equally well in just three.”
Most entrepreneurs would be happy becoming profitable in just three years. Nelson has to top Harvard AND presumably be profitable (since if he could actually do that it inevitably would be) over the same span of time.
Similarly, there’s this quote from the same Atlantic article I used last week which didn’t make the final cut of my post:
“To him [Nelson], the brass ring is for Minerva to force itself on the consciousness of the Yales and Swarthmores and “lead” American universities into a new era.”
Do you want to destroy elite colleges or lead them into a new era, Ben? It’s like he’s working out his issues on a public stage.
Cancel the “like” in that last sentence. Nelson and I share the same undergraduate alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. He, however, went to the Wharton School, which, the last time I checked, was still the best undergraduate business program in the country. Even though I majored in history and political science a little less than ten years before him, I understand completely what this is all about:
His ambition to reform academia was born of his own undergraduate experience. At Wharton, he was dissatisfied with what he perceived as a random barrage of business instruction, with no coordination to ensure that he learned bedrock skills like critical thinking. “My entire critique of higher education started with curricular reform at Penn,” he says. “General education is nonexistent. It’s effectively a buffet, and when you have a noncurated academic experience, you effectively don’t get educated. You get a random collection of information. Liberal-arts education is about developing the intellectual capacity of the individual, and learning to be a productive member of society. And you cannot do that without a curriculum.”
The reason Nelson thinks general education was non-existent is because he got an undergraduate business degree. I can assure that when I went there I had plenty of general education requirements that forced me to take all sorts of courses that I didn’t want to take at the time: Anthropology, psychology, distributional requirements that forced me to study areas of history outside the United States, etc. I ended up enjoying most of those required classes.
If Nelson was anything like my friends in Wharton, he hated all his classes because all his classes were, in fact, boring. Seriously, which would you rather study, accounting or anthropology? Look at the current distribution requirements at Wharton. Wouldn’t you rather study something else and maybe save the accounting for your graduate program?
Certainly, what Nelson did study was enough to serve as CEO of Snapfish.com, but it doesn’t tell you much at all about higher education is actually practiced. While he was dreaming of remaking education in his accounting classes, professors and students in College Hall (inspiration for the house on the Addams Family) over on the other side of campus were living his dream every day. That’s why I think Nelson is working out his aggressions against Harvard for the entire world to see. They made him go to his safety school.
So now you know why I tell almost everybody who asks that I went to Wisconsin, which is actually the more relevant degree for my profession. That, and Penn’s obsession with MOOCs, of course.