Minerva is an existence proof

Friday, March 29th, 2019

I’ve mentioned Minerva University a few times here. Arnold Kling calls it an experiment in centrally planned education:

I can applaud Minerva as an “existence proof” that it is possible to create a viable alternative to the standard university as it exists today. But I am concerned that Minerva’s emphasis on a highly-designed approach might give students the misleading impression that central planning is the best form of social organization.

Minerva started from a clear vision of how students should emerge from college. This vision included four core competencies, which were:

  • Thinking critically
  • Thinking creatively
  • Communicating effectively
  • Interacting effectively (page 24)

These core competencies were then broken down into dozens of what Minerva calls “habits of mind” and “foundational concepts,” each of which is given a hashtag abbreviation.

Habits of mind are cognitive skills that with practice come to be triggered automatically. (page 25, emphasis in original)

Foundational concepts are fundamental knowledge that is broadly applicable. (page 26, emphasis in original)

Two examples of habits of mind are:

Understand and use the emotional tools of persuasion. #emotionalpersuasion

Mitigate the role of conformity in group settings. #conformity (page 387)

Two examples of foundational concepts are:

Apply and interpret measures of correlation; distinguish correlation and causation. #correlation (page 381)

Identify ways that multiple causes interact to produce complex effects #multiplecauses (page 382)

The terms “habits of mind” and “foundational concepts” are examples of what I call Minerva-speak, a language that pervades the book. Another element of Minerva-speak is “far transfer.”

Far transfer occurs when students apply what they have learned in one context to a situation in a different time and place, one that, on the surface, does not resemble the original context. Far transfer is at the epicenter of what makes education effective. (page 51)

Another element of Minerva-speak is “active learning.”

Active learning requires students to engage with the material, relying on such activities as debate, role-playing, and group problem-solving. Active learning leads students to comprehend and retain much more information than do lectures. (page 135)

At most universities, it is up to each faculty member to design and implement a course. At Minerva, these processes are directed consciously from the center.

A Minerva syllabus is unusually detailed, often running to more than twenty single-spaced printed pages for a fifteen-week semester… As the author works through these details, he or she is able to discuss individual elements—everything from the overall summary of the course to the specific rubric descriptions used to evaluate student work on individual learning outcomes—with the course reviewer via discussion threads directly anchored to that element for context.

Once the reviewer is satisfied with the draft of the syllabus, Course Builder produces a shareable [document], which the course reviewer sends to an external reviewer for feedback, which the course author and reviewer later incorporate into the draft. (page 223)

Classes are conducted seminar style, albeit by computer conference rather than in person. Minerva uses a “radically flipped classroom,” with students expected to learn material, including what would be covered in lectures at other institutions, on their own before class. Class time is used for discussions and group problem-solving exercises that are carefully planned by the faculty in advance. Although there is room for spontaneity within these exercises, there is a lot of central control over what takes place in the classroom. Weekly meetings are held with all instructors teaching a particular course, in which they review the lesson plans to be used in advance.

Again, these lesson plans are pre-packaged and approved before the course even begins.

I think it’s fair to say that central planning is a bête noir of Kling’s, and the Minerva-speak is largely jargon they did not themselves create.


  1. Kirk says:

    Yeah… No.

    This is not the “future of education”, any more than the current dysfunctional paradigm is.

    What is going to wind up supplanting all this current mania for institutionalization is decentralized learning and skills certification. As the current paradigm loses relevancy and focus, it is going to be pushed aside by the needs of the users, which include the people doing the hiring as well as the ones seeking employment. Academia is going to always be here, but its relevance to the average person is going to go away as it loses track of its rigor and discipline in the search for cachet.

    Today, we have the spectacle of diplomas that don’t mean jack; if you are an employer, you can’t trust that the possessor of one actually has the skills you need them to have–Thus, the decreasing value of the diploma and the increase in what might be termed “proof credentials”. What’s going to happen, in my belief, is that you’re going to start to see private certifications from outside the realm of academia come in, much as the state runs things like the boards which run Professional Engineer licensing. If you can’t trust a diploma to mean that the holder can read and write clear English, well… You’re gonna have to have something, and if you can’t do your own testing (established by law and the courts, which is how we got here…) someone is going to have to step in to fill the void. And, they will. Once that happens, things like the Khan Academy will start filling the need for basic certifications, and from there, it will only grow. We’re going to see an increase in de-institutionalization of these things, because the institutions have proven to be easily captured by those with outside agendas, and have completely lost the trust of the public. The current academic paradigm is in the early stages of committing institutional suicide, and what comes after them is going to have to look a lot different, and be more trustworthy.

    Time was, even a high school diploma meant something. Today, those diplomas have been so thoroughly devalued as to make them so much toilet paper, and the eventual effect of that is going to be felt up and down the current academic food chain. It’s not just the lower levels that have problems–You see this crap with the recent admissions scandals, and you suddenly start to understand why so many products coming to you from these schools are barely functional as citizens, let alone skilled employees.

    Something has to change, and I don’t see reforms coming from within. The next century or two will see the current paradigm for education becoming a quaint anachronism, more ceremonial than anything else. It’ll be like Buckingham Palace–A facade for tourists, rather than a living institution. The real function will be out the world, decentralized and powered-down to the lowest level, likely run by local certification agencies that earn and keep their trust through the demonstrated skills of the people they certify.

  2. Graham says:

    The four core competencies are code phrases for particular ways of:

    Thinking critically about selected topics in structured ways, and not otherwise

    Thinking creatively about ways to achieve prescribed goals or about solving previously identified problems, and not others

    Communicating effectively to ensure others share these goals, and by using approved methods

    Interacting effectively in approved ways

    I can’t remember when I read anything that triggered my cynicism subroutine so quickly.

    The rest of it sounds like some plausible extractable concepts mixed into a word salad of baffaloo and, as you say, borrowed by these authors from all over the place. Most of that lingo could be pulled out of the air these days by any good tinfoil hat’s receptors. If you work in government or academia or any entity that emulates them, you are likely taking a mental bath in it daily.

  3. Kirk says:

    People who talk about “communicating effectively” rarely actually do so.

    The bafflegab in all the material I see about this Minerva thing is amazingly dense, almost off the scale.

    I don’t know why these people can’t use plain and simple language, as opposed to all this complexity and BS. The fact that they don’t is a marker for how full of crap they are, I think. If you can’t explain your thesis in terms that are intelligible to a person with a sixth-grade education, odds are that your ideas are not at all workable in the first place. Complexity is to be avoided like the plague–Old boss of mine was of the opinion that any military operation that could not be outlined on the sleeve from a rations box was too complex to succeed.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    What has always worked best for me: less time “studying” and more time doing. There are many problems with studying, but they all boil down to lack of empirical verification – either of the material or of your understanding of the material.

    The key is to do something on a small enough scale that you manage the risks. Anything you can walk away from in one piece is just practice.

    I like computerized drills – of my own design. Perhaps what kids really need to learn first is how to write their own personalized computer drills. Then they can start learning how to learn.

    For example: instead of French, teach the basics of the Pimsleur method and the basics of Python/Tkinter scripting, give them sample code to crib off of, and let them study whatever language they see fit with whatever emphasis they see fit.

    But of course the education industry wouldn’t get as big a cut anymore…

    “If you can’t explain your thesis in terms that are intelligible to a person with a sixth-grade education, odds are that your ideas are not at all workable in the first place.” I guess it would depend on the particular seventh grader you try to explain it to.

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