Suzanne Fields

"We don't necessarily know how to teach you to be a better orthodontist or a better tax accountant," Mr. Nelson tells the daily London Independent. "We innovate in teaching you how to think, how to be creative, how to communicate effectively -- and how to lead." Too much time and money in the old system is spent on disseminating knowledge which is already freely available on the Internet. It can be elicited in dialogue with smart teachers and savvy kids.

The teaching at Minerva will be done in intensive, interactive seminars, many conducted online using Minerva's specialized video-conferencing system, with professors based in different cities. It's not free, but it's not as expensive as the Ivy League education to which Minerva expects to be eventually compared.

Minerva's first freshman class is made up of only 33 carefully selected students, and the founder expects up to 300 by next year, with tuition, room and board priced at $28,000. To attract talented, motivated students for its inaugural year in San Francisco, first-year freshmen get a $10,000 tuition scholarship for four years and free room and board in their first year. Minerva expects to eventually open campuses in London, Berlin, New York City, Buenos Aires, Mumbai (it used to be called Bombay) and Hong Kong.

Initial start-up costs are relatively inexpensive, and Minerva says it could show a profit of up to $280 million annually if it grows to classes the size of 2,500 students. Minerva has attracted big-name advisers, including Larry Summers, the former secretary of the Treasury and once the president of Harvard, and Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska and once the president of the New School in New York.

Curriculum at Minerva is crucial, and cornerstone courses teach ways of thinking with studying of the fundamentals. The great books will be taught with prominent scholars as guides in online seminars. Science labs will emphasize controlled experiments, and the humanities will emphasize classical rhetoric and persuasion.

This could sound like a big pie in the sky, but many parents, like those waving goodbye to their offspring this week, are desperate for something better than expensive and politically correct mediocrity. If it's the pie that satisfies, they want a piece of it.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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