High Anxiety: Minerva edition.

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.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Historiann


    Your theory about Ben Nelson’s status anxiety and his ressentiment about his boring Wharton education is brilliant. Instead of drowning in his bitterness, he should have just walked a few steps East and earned a real education.

    The analysis here is parallel to that “On Bullshit Jobs” essay that I believe you brought to my attention last year. In brief, what I really appreciated about it was the diagnosis that people with bullshit jobs are angry at those of us who have non-bullshit jobs that might be a little bit interesting and fulfilling. That really made sense to me.

    1. Jonathan Rees

      You make an excellent point as usual, Historiann,

      But you were actually one step ahead of me. I’m not quite ready to declare that Minerva’s education is bullshit. Read that article and it sounds technologically sophisticated, dictatorial and a little cruel…but it might not stink. Of course, Nelson could create the best online program ever and not survive as a business, which kind of brings me back to the point of my original essay.

      1. Historiann

        I’m probably readier than you are to call bull$hit on Minerva. I think your diagnosis of the sources of the ressintiment still works, and is still parallel to the BS Jobs essay.

        Remember, the author of that essay never said that BS jobs weren’t jobs. People get paychecks and benefits to do the BS jobs. He just pointed out that they were bull$hit, that they served little if any real function, and that the people who do the BS jobs resent people whose jobs involve offering real, visible, and meaningful service to their communities (like teachers, proffies, firefighters, physicians, EMTs, social workers, etc.)

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