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Course Review — The Ancient Greek Hero MOOC From edX

I’ve already discussed why several components of HarvardX’s Ancient Greek Hero MOOC were so successful (especially during this interview with the Greek Hero team).  And a story published in The New Yorker highlights another important aspect of the course’s greatness: the legendary graciousness of its instructor Greg Nagy and the dedication of the team behind the class.  Which is why I’d like to focus this review on the substance of Ancient Greek Hero and its relevance to other subjects of study (including my own study of philosophy).

Greek Hero MOOC

Rob Koopman via Flickr

On the surface, this is a classical literature course in which students are asked to read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in their entirety, as well as selections from the epic poetry of Hesiod, the histories of Herodotus, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and the Socratic dialogs of Plato.

But surfaces can be deceiving, for while the course covers a lot of literary territory, it is not a “this-happened-then-that-happened”/”this-is-how-everything-fits-together” standard survey course.

Rather, the course has a highly focused goal: to acquaint students with the critical role played by the hero in ancient Greek culture. And as with other dialectical ironies, it turns out that zeroing in on this one aspect of ancient Greek history/literature/society sheds far more light on the whole than would looking at everything from a height of 10,000 feet.

Or a perspective of 2,500 years. For one of the key challenges in the course is to get into the minds of those who created and wrote, read or (far more frequently) heard these classics performed live to understand the mind of people living in a society very different from our own (even if it gave birth to almost everything we now take for granted). Professor Nagy describes the error of interpreting the behaviors and decisions of those who lived long ago from our own modern perspective (what logicians call The Historian’s Fallacy) as “reading into the text,” a mindset sure to earn you big red X’s on your quizzes if you find yourself judging Achilles and Oedipus by contemporary standards.

The alternative to reading into a text is reading out of it, and this highlights another irony of an online class taken by tens of thousands of people over the Internet. For despite the technology that enables such a course, the key activity that took up a majority of student time was good old fashioned reading.

And not just reading the original classics. For each week (or each hour – the course is broken into 24 of them) includes a “fast reading” assignment of an original text (such as a complete play or Platonic dialog or long stretch of Homer) combined with slow reading of a chapter form Nagy’s textbook The Greek Hero in 24 Hours.

This slow reading involves a deep engagement with a handful of excepts delving into key aspect of the Greek hero – either in his or her role as epic hero (think Achilles routing the Trojan army or Odysseus outsmarting his terrestrial and celestial tormentors), lyric heroes (such as the aforementioned Achilles, a hero of power and violence in epic who becomes the ultimate romantic interest in lyric poetry) or dead heroes (who play their most important role as the object of hero cults).

A majority of the video dialogs that accompany each reading assignment focus on the process and procedures of becoming a cult hero, and how omnipresent hero cults defined Ancient Greek society, bridging the worlds between life and death, God and human and – most critical of all – mortality and immortality.

And this is where the course provided the most perspective (at least to me as a philosophy major). For when you study ancient philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, there’s an understandable tendency to place them into the context of what came before (the pre-Socratics who created the natural sciences) and what came after (notably Aristotle, Christianity and Modernity).

But if you look at Socrates’ dialogs regarding the immortality of the soul (notably The Meno and The Phaedo – the second of which we read for class), you realize that the notion of immortality through the spoken word (be it epic, song or philosophical dialog) surrounded the ancient Greek and would have had extra impact on great reflective thinkers of that period such as Socrates and Plato.

And even as my own study moved into far newer texts (such as the works of Nietzsche), that modern philosopher’s attempt to locate a pre-Christian morality was firmly rooted in the classics. And after taking Greek Hero I now have a far clearer idea of what that classical mindset was all about (beyond some distant society to pass modern judgment on).

Given the centrality of ancient Greece to virtually everything we know and live today, I suspect there is not a single subject (history, psychology, even physics) the study of which couldn’t benefit from placing yourself inside the heads of the people who gave birth to these disciplines.

And so the ultimate value of the Ancient Greek Hero MOOC is not just the technical lessons other course developers can learn from one of the most successful implementation of a MOOC class.  For even more importantly, Greek Hero now makes the study of a vital subject available to anyone ready to learn it.


Jonathan Haber (19 Posts)

Jonathan Haber is a Boston-based writer and educational specialist whose Degree of Freedom project is experimenting with whether it's possible to learn everything you would get from a four year liberal arts degree in just twelve months using only free educational resources. You can follow his progress at