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This University Teaches You No Skills—Just a New Way to Think


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Ben Nelson says the primary purpose of a university isn’t to prepare students for a career. It’s to prepare them for life. And he now has $70 million to prove his point.


Nelson is the founder and CEO of a new experiment in higher education called Minerva Project. He says when it comes to learning, job training is the easy part. With the emergence of online courses, it’s easier and cheaper than ever to acquire the hard skills you need to land a job. “Why would you spend a quarter of a million dollars and four years to learn to code in Python?” he says. “If that’s the role of universities, you’d have to be insane to go to universities.”


But that doesn’t mean Nelson believes the country’s liberal arts colleges are doing a particularly terrific job either. He argues most schools do little more than teach students a core canon of information, a practice he says is archaic, given how much information people have access to these days. “Today, it’s absurd to say you need to know this information and without this information, you’re not an informed person,” he says.


Students don’t need universities to teach them history, chemistry, and political science, Nelson says. They need universities to teach them how to think. At Minerva, he says, students learn just that.


How You Think, Not What You Know

Minerva is a four-year, for-profit college housed within Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California. Its students all live together on a traditional residential campus, but that’s about the only way in which Minerva is traditional. For starters, it’s highly exclusive, boasting a 2.8 percent acceptance rate, which is lower than even Harvard or Stanford. Its students take all their classes online, and after their first year in California, they spend each semester in a new country of their choosing. What’s more, tuition is just $10,000 a year. This fall, Minerva admitted its first class of 29 students and recently landed $70 million in funding, enough to offer the founding class of students full scholarships through graduation.


But while there are many things that make Minerva unusual, the curriculum is what makes it truly unique. Minerva toys with the notion that in a world where information is never more than a click away, what matters most is not what you know off the top of your head, but how you analyze and interpret everything you learn. And so, the school takes a hard stance against teaching hard skills. You won’t find any of the typical gen-ed courses in its freshman curriculum. Instead, freshmen take esoteric-sounding courses like “Empirical Analysis” and “Multimodal Communication.” The entire first year at Minerva is dedicated to teaching three things and three things only: critical thinking, creative thinking, and effective communication.


“It’s basically like brain hacking. We’re changing the way you perceive the world around you,” Nelson says.


The New New Education

In this way, Minerva is not only an extreme departure from traditional universities. It’s an extreme departure from its fellow education innovators. The last few years have seen a boom in edtech startups, like Coursera, Udacity, and Codecademy, all of which focus heavily on teaching students the skills they need to land or switch jobs. Nelson isn’t opposed to these platforms. In fact, he expects most Minerva students will use them to teach themselves hard skills outside of class. But, he says, those skills are worth a lot more with the fundamental critical thinking abilities to back them up.


“We didn’t want them to be trained just for some profession or particular kind of academic niche,” says Dr. Stephen Kosslyn, Minerva’s founding dean and a former Harvard and Stanford professor. “We wanted them to have the intellectual tools to succeed at jobs that don’t even exist yet.”


Teaching students how to think is a fuzzy, amorphous idea. And so, Nelson and Dr. Kosslyn crafted an exhaustive list of what they call “habits of mind and foundational concepts” that they want every student to learn in their first year. There are 129 of them, and attempting to understand them all can be a bit dizzying, so here’s a concrete example:


If a doctor wants to prescribe you a new medication, one of the first questions he’ll ask you is what other medications you’re taking. In medicine, we’re constantly on the lookout for adverse interactions. But ask someone whether they support a given law, and they’re likely to go with their gut, without stopping to think about all the other laws that interact with that law. Minerva would like to make that type of analytical thinking a “habit of mind,” which its students apply to all their judgment calls.


“The way you teach that is not by teaching medicine,” Nelson says. “Instead, you teach the very concept of interactions.”


Minerva does teach students practical things, of course. Freshmen learn statistics and historical analysis, but only within those much broader courses. “Usually schools teach you English and chemistry and hope you’ll pick up critical thinking and communication,” Dr. Kosslyn says. “We’ve flipped it on its ear.”


Special Specializations

After freshman year, students also choose a major and take more specialized courses. But all of the classes are interdisciplinary, such as “Art for Political and Social Change” or “Natural Resources and Environmental Economics.” Finally, during their last two years, they’re tasked with “creating something novel” within their given concentration. This is more than just a thesis presentation. If they’re studying politics, for instance, they might draft a law and try to get it passed.


“It’s intended to be a bridge from college to the real world,” says Dr. Kosslyn.


For all its pedagogical complexity, of course, it’s possible that the corporate world just won’t buy Minerva’s little experiment in education. It could be that society is already pre-programmed to hire for tangible, rather than intangible, skills. And in order for a model like this to take off, universities across the country would have to adopt it too. According to Dr. Kosslyn, that could take some time.


“The main reaction I’ve gotten from academics is almost envy. They recognize the utility and value of what were trying to do and appreciate the effort, but also understand it’d be extremely difficult for them to revise their curriculum to do what we’re trying to do,” he says. “There’s a lot of legacy, which makes things hard to change.”





Sounds great in theory, not sure about the practicality. Also the article quotes $10k p/a, but total costs come to around $30k p/a.

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