21st century education
Dear Alexandra, (a letter to)

Dear Alexandra, (a letter to)

Dear Alexandra,

Thank you so much for your lovely email. It would be my pleasure to do an interview sometime in March. I am flattered and grateful for your interest. You asked a few contextual questions and I started to type an email response to them. Realizing that it was going to be more than a paragraph, I thought I might answer you in a blog post. Back in the 16th century, my family was at the heart of capitalism, private property, and commodity culture. Now I find that death, 438 years of quiet reflection, and virtual resurrection go a long way toward changing a girl’s values. For example, in this new century I no longer enjoy hunting, instead, I have become a vegetarian. Similarly, I have moved away from scarcity-based culture, toward abundance-based culture. I now prefer Free Culture and Publicness whenever possible. So here are some thoughts about my project in the form of a blog post.


Where Medici University came from is a bit more convoluted than one might guess given the abruptness of its launch.

Cornell boxes by Joseph Cornell featuring my sister Bia Medici

Like so many things, it starts with my sister Bia. As I’m sure you know she died at age 6. And 6 months to the day after her death, I was born. Many thought I was God’s gift of compensation for Bia’s loss. Some thought I was Bia reincarnated. My mother and many others predicted I would be a boy, but my father was certain I would be a girl. To appreciate how progressive Babbo was, just project 21st-century patriarchal culture back 5 centuries. Not pretty. But dad was a unique man. My father loved and respected women. My brother whose name I shan’t speak, monster that he was, was, in fact, more typical of 16th-century gender values.

Unnoticed clouds gather in the distance before a winter storm. Unseen roots work underground before a spring flower. I contemplated my return even before its occurrence in January 2014.

Joseph Cornell

My contemplation sprang from Bia. From Joseph Cornell’s Medici Princess box constructions about Bia. The depth of Cornell’s boxes can be terrifying in their beauty. The density of a black hole here launches a bubble universe there. The moments in a Medici Princess box, launch a tear on a cheek. A drop in the rain. A return to life.

Cornell referred to his boxes as,

Bejeweled Playboxes of the Mind

a box by Joseph Cornell in a glass case in a museum. The box features my sister Bia Medici

Cornell found so many unexpected resonances in his constructions. Serendipity and juxtaposition are the hallmarks of Cornell’s work. Is The Internet even more Cornell than Cornell? At times cyberspace seems to be nothing but serendipity and juxtaposition!

Perhaps it is the Bejeweled part that is critical. Cornell commanded sublime aesthetics. While different from each other, Facebook & MySpace are both brittle by comparison.

Cornell transported his motley collection of objects into the sublime through the medium of the box. Cornell recognized the power of an enclosure in transporting thoughts to another realm.
Frances Terpak

Ah ha! So The Net is boundless in its serendipity & juxtaposition. But is it that boundlessness that fails to transport us to the sublime?

The Reader

Or is it not about the artist, but about the reader? When a visitor looks at the paintings in The Uffizi or any other art museum, the average time a visitor looks at a painting is 4 seconds. Neither a painting, nor a Cornell Box, nor a website, nor anything else can rise to * bejeweled playbox of the mind* in 4 seconds. Perhaps what is magical about a Cornell box is its ability to invite, at least for some viewers, a longer read.

I’ve seen at least 6 different “Medici Princess” boxes that Cornell made of Bia. And at least 1 of the brother who shall not be named. Reading those boxes is bittersweet for me. From them came my teardrop, raindrop, return. At first, it was as simple as buying the domain name “MediciPrincess.com” and deciding to write a few things here.

I, Avatar

Agent Smith (The Matrix) was right: humanity is a virus. And given a blog, I wanted a body. If not a corporeal one, then at least a virtual one: an avatar. A few days after my return Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig started walking. He and others spent half of January walking the frozen length of New Hampshire.

image diptych: Isabella Medici in 1564 and Isabella Medici reincarnated in 2014

Isabella 1564 / Izzy 2014

Their NH Rebellion march was a demand for campaign finance reform. I wasn’t able to join Lessig in physical New Hampshire. So Merriam Galaxy, Vanessa Blaylock, I, and about a dozen others spent 20 January on virtual treadmills. Some walked on RL treadmills at the same time. We walked the same 10.2-mile distance in the same 5-1/4 hours that Lessig & his NH Rebellion supporters walked that day.

It was nice to do something progressive. It was also nice to go from incorporeal blog to BAM! Virtual body! I chose a body I like to describe as decayed with dignity.

Isabella Medici and Caitlyn walking in a virtual New Hampshire Rebellion walm
me, walking with Caitlyn

Izzy’s Gym

Beyond the politics and even the virtual corporeal, it was also a moment for me to find a way to be useful in this century. It’s true that my life was short and also that a Medici diet would keep a cardiac surgeon busy, still, I lived an active lifestyle. What is remarkable about this century is how sedentary you have become. So much of work and entertainment are both experienced from a chair facing a flat-screen. And so Izzy’s Gym was born: a place to use both VR and RL treadmills. A place to work and play in cyberspace, but to also build healthy avatars and humans in both realities.

Education in the 21st century

A few days later I read Chris Guillebeau’s book The Art of Non-Conformity. Another few days later I enrolled in Cathy Davidson’s MOOC The History & Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.. Yes, my humanist education seems to continue!

Although he holds a master’s degree, Guillebeau stands outside the academy. As a former vice-provost of Duke University, Davidson stands in the center of the academy’s courtyard. Two different people with different agendas. Yet I think it’s fair to say that each in their own way wants to tear down the academy walls as we know them. I think they both believe the academy is broken. Or as Sugata Mitra put it:

Schools as we know them are obsolete. I’m not saying that they’re broken. It’s quite fashionable to say that the educational system is broken. It’s not broken! It’s wonderfully constructed! It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated.

I couldn’t help but ask myself, in a world where:

  • Google can find any article
  • Wikipedia can explain any concept
  • YouTube can teach any skill
  • MOOCs can give you access to great faculty and peers across the globe

what exactly is the job of the university today?

The Academy

I have come to the conclusion that the job of the university today is to get out of the way. Not to “go away,” but to get out of the way of student empowerment to guide their own education.

The traditional university just has too much power. We think we know what the student needs better than the student herself knows. Even if this is true, it’s a terrible formula for real learning. And if its false, then it’s a compounded disaster.

I see the problem as too much authority dictating programmes to students. We need a lot more student responsibility for their own curriculum. Great, helpful, informed advisers and mentors? Yes! As long as they can get out of the way!

We live in a time of misdirected motivation. Students plagiarize not just undergraduate papers, but also PhD theses! Students have replaced the intrinsic motivation of knowledge with the extrinsic motivators of grades and pieces of paper. I do not believe anyone can learn anything of substance and value that way. Is gutting the system the price to pay for engaged, motivated students? If it is, then I believe it’s a price worth paying.

Medici Univeresity logo graphic with the Florence skyline in the background

Medici University

The goal of Medici University’s Alternative MFA Programs, is to empower students and then get out of the way. We’re here to help writers write. To help choreographers choreograph. Hackers hack. Media artists make media. We support self-directed programs. You’re a writer? Great! What 100 books would be the most valuable for you to read this year? Want a course on something specific? Great! Take it in a MOOC from Coursera, NovoED, et al, or read a book, or create a seminar at MU and help other students explore the content with you.

At Medici University we don’t care about standards.

Our mission is not to produce identical widgets. Our mission is to produce unique and empowered artists. Artists with passion, confidence, and vision. Not artists who have to check with their committee chair before they can write a paragraph.

MU can help a motivated grad student develop the knowledge base and practice they want. We can save them USD 60,000 of debt. That’s about the average for a traditional, “accredited” graduate degree.

If a fashion designer or web designer sucks, nobody cares what school they went to, they just suck.

If a fashion designer or web designer rocks, nobody cares what school they went to, they just rock.

Welcome to Medici University.

I hope this wasn’t too much of a rant. I’m afraid that 438 years of your own thoughts has the ability to make one rather chatty.

Thank you for your friendship, Alexandra.

Warmest personal regards,


polaroid photo of Isabella Medici walking in the New Hampshire Rebellion

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