There was a fascinating piece about Ben Nelson’s attempt to create a new “elite” university this weekend at the Wall Street Journal. His goal, he claims, is to make his own “Minerva University” a better Harvard.
As my wife read the article to me (we’re traveling West, an annual All-Birzer family extravaganza—my very first pieces for The Imaginative Conservative were written on just such a rip, three years ago), waves of regret flew over me. Regret, not because I have anything to do with this new venture, and not because I don’t have anything to do with this venture, but because my profession is in such horrible shape.
In sum, Nelson believes that the time is ready for a revolution in education. The model of education, he states, now 1,000 years old, is dead. The delivery system, especially, has failed. His own Ivy League background taught him this, as well as having watched Amazon destroy Borders.
The WSJ writer writes:
But Minerva will have no hallowed halls, manicured lawns or campus. No fraternities or sports teams. Students will spend their first year in San Francisco, living together in a residence hall. If they need to borrow books, says Mr. Nelson, the city has a great public library. Who needs a student center with all of the coffee shops around? Each of the next six semesters students will move, in cohorts of about 150, from one city to another. Residences and high-tech classrooms will be set up in the likes of São Paulo, London or Singapore—details to come. Professors get flexible, short-term contracts, but no tenure. Minerva is for-profit. The business buzzword here is the “unbundling” of higher education, or disaggregation. Since the founding of Oxford in the 12th century, universities, as the word implies, have tried to offer everything in one package and one place. In the world of the Web and Google, physical barriers are disappearing.
The new university will be virtual as well as moveable. Perhaps, he claims, there will be more non-Americans enrolled than Americans. For Nelson, it’s clearly a Brave New World. He already has Larry Summers and Bob Kerrey on board with him. Additionally, to give it some legitimacy in academia, Nelson has teamed up with Claremont, a consortium of colleges in Southern California.
There will be no core in the liberal-arts sense at Minerva. Instead, the core will teach debating skills and logic to every incoming freshman. Armed with such thinking, the student will approach every other course for the remaining years of study. Anything else—the ideas of Socrates, the dates of the English Reformation—can all be learned via the web or in one’s free time, Nelson argues.
So, why regret? I regret a state of education where such a thing is possible. As academics, we have inflated our sense of worth, and we have narrowed ourselves into marginal spaces and cubes and smaller cubes over the past 150 years. We have, in a sense, allowed for a world that can no longer understand that education is not training, or time serving, or earning a job certificate—that it is a means of leisure by which a person discovers and enlivens his very humanity.
How many real liberal arts colleges even exist anymore? By my count, just a very few. So few, I can name them all: St. John’s, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, the University of Dallas, and Christendom. Programs, fine ones, also exist at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul) and at the University of Notre Dame. Hillsdale College (I single this out because of my own personal bias, having taught here for 15 years) has an excellent core and it employs three of the greatest thinkers—anywhere—regarding the liberal arts: Mark Kalthoff, David Whalen, and Richard Gamble. There’s probably a college here or there that I’m not giving enough credit. But, I’m close. So, six colleges and two programs at two schools.
Yet, there’s more to regret. Nelson has some great ideas, of course, and he’s obviously a brilliant man, perhaps a genius. I especially like the idea of ending sports (and, before you jump on me; some of my favorite students are athletes. I’m just not sure it’s in the best interests of the students. Perhaps, this is for another post and debate.) A few other observations, probably none of which will surprise readers of The Imaginative Conservative.
First, in the choice of his first year core, Nelson is replacing the Socratic vision of education with the Sophist vision. In its blunt honesty and cynicism, Nelson’s education might even be worse than any education now available in academia, as it will only produce debaters. Indeed, his college seems to me to be a form of high school debate camp. I loved debate camp. But, I wouldn’t want to live in it. It’s one of the best things possible for a sixteen-year-old, but it would be deadly for a society.
Second, there are some institutions that need to remain entirely aloof from the market. I write this as—I’m sure—the most free market of all The Imaginative Conservative’s contributors. I have nothing against the market, but the market shouldn’t drive education or religion. I know that it does, and that it’s inescapable that it does. But, to embrace the market—more than just recognize its influence—is, to me, the height of folly when it comes to education. As with church, a college must leaven the human person (each unique in time and place, talents and faults), not mechanize him or her.
Third, I absolutely wince at the idea of education being tied to a “brand.” Target is a brand, a good one. Panera is a brand. A good one. Hampton is a brand. Again, a good one. Same with Kellogg’s and a few others. Notre Dame is not a brand, it’s French for Our Lady. You want to market Mary? Good luck in eternity with that. Harvard is not a brand. Yale is not a brand. St. Thomas is not a brand.
Fourth, and I have an obvious bias in my response here, the professor—in Nelson’s scheme—becomes nothing more than a wage earner. How can one profess with an administration domineering and driven by profit? How can one profess to fourteen students in an intimate setting while broadcasting from across an ocean. Granted, it is probable that a majority of tenured professors abuse their position in every way possible. But, this doesn’t lesson the need for tenure any more than hating taxes reduces the need—a huge concession for me—for government.
Tenure, in its original form (and still upheld in many places) is meant to give the professor leisure to develop ideas and to toy and play with those ideas in a quasi-public setting. It is a vital part of the university tradition. Most likely, the system of tenure needs reform. Reform, however, is far from repeal.
If nothing else, perhaps, Nelson’s vision might give us the strength to fight the good fight. Nelson is right—the system is terribly, horribly, disgustingly flawed. And, I’m sorry that University of Pennsylvania did not teach him to think critically. The solution to the flaws in education does not come from revolution, but from return. Socrates is not dead, just missing. We need to find him, reread him, and give him a bear hug.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.