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Course Review – World War II and Society

While described as an edX course, World War and Society in the Twentieth Century: World War II (taught by Harvard’s Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History, Charles S. Maier) is available from the Harvard Extension School, rather than from the edX site. And the course consists of just recordings of straight classroom lectures (24 in all – each 50 minutes in length), rather than the type of hybrid courses I’ve enrolled in such as edX’s Justice or Greek Hero classes.

Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber over at Degree of Freedom, who is  tracking his progress in trying to learn in just twelve months everything he  would if enrolled in a four year liberal arts BA program and using only free  resources. Along the way he is writing reviews of courses he completes, some of  which he generously allows us to republish here. To get all of Jonathan’s MOOC  reviews, and more, be sure to sign up for the weekly Degree of Freedom Newsletter.

I’m not sure if this means’ Professor Maier’s course (which is taught to Harvard undergrads as well as Extension School students) is in the process of being reworked into something more MOOC-like. (One clue is that the Harvard Extension Open Learning site also includes video-only classes by classicist Gregory Nagy on The Hero in Ancient Greek Civilization which includes different videos than the ones appearing in his Greek Hero edX MOOC on the same subject. Similarly, Circuits and Electronics on M.I.T.’s OpenCourseWare was eventually converted into an edX course.)

Putting such speculations aside to focus on the class itself, World War and Society is a classic survey course covering a broad sweep of material that begins with the First World War and its aftermath and ends with post-WWII de-colonization and the kick-off to the Cold War. In between, Professor Maier introduces us to the personality, motivations and politics of big players such as Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, as well as walking students through all of the major World War II theaters of conflict with descriptions of strategies, tactics and decisive battles.

Professor Maier is my kind of lecturer: subdued, informed, insightful and ready to make diverse connections between what’s happening on the battlefield and the political, economic, logistical and human factors that made each of these historic moments possible (and, in some cases, inevitable). But if you prefer some of the bite-size lecture “chunks,” multimedia and interactions you find in more traditional MOOC classes, you should probably think of World War and Society as similar to the types of classes you will find on iTunes U.

Not that the class forgoes media entirely (even if the teacher seems more comfortable drawing national boundaries of Eastern Europe or South Asia on the blackboard vs. illustrating them with Google Earth).

For Professor Maier is a connoisseur of wartime cultural artifacts which made his talks about the home front and WWII as a driver of social change particularly captivating (illustrated as they were with propaganda posters and art from many countries involved in the conflict). And listening to Spike Jones’ Der Feuher’s Face brought back memories of my father playing the same tune to me on his old 78s (once we realized our turntable could go up to that number of rotations per minute).

I especially recommend this course for any reader for whom that last sentence was totally incomprehensible. For in our current Modern, Post-Modern, Digital or whatever we’re calling the Age we’re living through right now, it’s easy to lose sight of the sheer amount people were able to accomplish, build, transport and – yes – destroy in an analog era when ideology could set the world ablaze and sacrifice was required to put the fire out.


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