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Online Ed’s Excellent Adventure: How a Philosophy MOOC Handles the Survey Course

Michael Roth’s Philosophy MOOC on The Modern and the Postmodern was reviewed previously here at MOOC News and Reviews, and Professor Roth (who is also President of Wesleyan University) somehow also managed to find time to write up his experience at both the Wall Street Journal and Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required).

So in order to add something new to the material already published on this important class, I’d like to focus on how the professor treats the challenges inherent in a survey course (MOOC or conventional) that must cover centuries of material by some of the Western tradition’s most important thinkers.

The class begins where most modern philosophy courses start: with René Descartes assertion that at least one thing can be known with absolute certainty: that a person thinking can be sure that he is thinking. And with a galloping horse, a flash of silver and a hearty “I think therefore I am,” the Modern search for certainty (or what Professor Roth calls “the really real”) was off.

This search brings us in contact with Enlightenment boosters (notably Kant) and critics (Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx) as well as the scientists (Darwin, Freud) who set the stage for a post-modernity that would be based on the ambiguity of biology and psychology, rather than the absolute mathematics of physics.

Unlike other philosophy survey courses I’ve taken, Coursera’s The Modern and the Postmodern does not limit itself to philosophers but also introduces us to literary figures (Flaubert, Wolff, Baudelaire), artists (Delequay, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec) and the aforementioned scientists to round out a picture of modernity that defined all aspects of intellectual and aesthetic activity (at least in the West) in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Once we reach the Postmodern era, Professor Roth breaks from a brisk trot into a full gallop, trying to expose students to a host of transitional and Postmodern thinkers including Wittgenstein (the great deconstructor of language), Foucault (the great deconstructor of everything) and Rorty (the pragmatist who tried to bring us all back to earth by claiming that most of the questions philosophy has struggled with exist solely to give philosophers something to argue over).

And I’m not even going to get to the writings/performances of Judith Butler, Cornel West and Slavoj Žižek, the fiction of Jennifer Egan, or the scenes from Blade Runner we were asked to think about during the course.

If just reading this list leaves you breathless, you can imagine how we students felt as our brains began to get as crowded with historical figures as the phone booth at the end of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

But Professor Roth was doing something other than just exposing students to important thinkers and artistic creators. He was also fitting them into a personal philosophy regarding how the 18th and 19th century’s quest for (and 20th century’s turn away from) the search for the “really real” impacted and continues to impact all of our lives. And while some students might be left scratching their heads over why Roth included some thinkers and left others out, one of the most important aspects of the course is that it provided students an example of how they could use the past to construct, support or change their own views of the world.

That said, I think the postmodern part of the course (where 3-4 different thinkers competed for time with each lecture) might have been more satisfying if it had been paced like the first half (where one week was generally dedicated to a single philosopher or writer). So when the course is given again (as it will be in June), a rebalancing might require snipping out elements clearly near and dear to the teacher’s heart (such as the two lectures dedicated to painting) or extending weekly lectures to two hours instead of one.

That’s a lot to ask for someone also running a major university who has already shown such a high level of commitment to free learning. But for a course that has already successfully combined enthusiastic lecturing with demanding reading and challenging writing assignments, some time dedicated to balance could make this one of the most important classes on the Internet.


Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber 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.

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