Degree of Freedom News -
March 3, 2014
Wrapping up reviews of courses completed as part of my Degree of Freedom project, this newsletter looks the last iTunes U courses I took: American Intellectual History from the University of California at Berkeley.
That’s followed by a few notes regarding comings and goings, wrapping up with some thoughts on how we should be thinking about MOOCs during the post-hype, post-backlash period that we are now entering.
So let’s get rolling…
I discovered this course while trying to track down material for a self-study program on the philosophical school of Pragmatism, America’s one major, original contribution to the Western philosophical canon. As of yet, no MOOCs are focused on this subject, and having failed to find any online course devoted to the topic, I had to self-curate one using readings and lectures found on the open web, academic databases, and my local library.
One of the few iTunes U offerings that touched on Pragmatic philosophy was a Berkeley American Studies course on American Intellectual History taught by Professor Richard Canada Smith. And after listening to his first lecture on Pragmatism (lecture 11 in the course lineup), I realized (1) I really needed the background provided by the first ten lectures to understand the traditions Pragmatism grew out of; and (2) this was a rocking subject taught by a skilled professor, so why deny myself the chance to take the whole course?
The best learning experiences teach you how much of what you think you know is actually wrong (or barely constitutes the start of a story). For example, even among those who don’t look down their nose at the notion of America intellectual history, the categories we use to understand this nation’s political and intellectual world view tends to be frozen in the present where every debate boils down to a kind of Left vs. Right or religious vs. secular tribalism.
The fact that our national intellectual makeup derives from ideas that transcend these narrow categories has pretty much been lost. And these are the ideas Professor Smith reintroduced me to, providing an old/new framework to better understand the twists and turns of American history, intellectual and otherwise.
The first idea we had to come to grips with was Common Sense, not the lower-case vernacular version of that phrase, but the philosophical idea, birthed in Scotland, that permeated the thinking of not just the country’s Founding Fathers (including Thomas Paine, whose essay of that name probably represents the only exposure to the concept we still teach to young students), but the people in whose name those Founders forged a nation.
According to Common Sense philosophy, there was no problem so vexing that a set of individuals working cooperatively could not solve it. The jury system, which asks a group of strangers chosen at random to dissect complex evidence and come up with a verdict that balances legal rules, ethical principles and a human sense of justice and compassion, persists in the US as one of the few areas where Common Sense still reigns.
But imagine a nation where self-governance was built around the small-town legislative equivalent of a jury trial, where groups of people working together solved local issues without the need for experts or outside interference from higher governmental powers? Once you realize that this was the model of governance out of which the nation grew, suddenly the American notion of “rugged individualism” takes on a different color. For while our decentralized governmental system did place power in the hands of individuals, it presumed those individuals would work together in small, local groups to come up with the right choices for the common good.
While an understanding of Common Sense might confound our self-perception as a nation of individuals who can choose which aspects of the community we want to participate in, the Common Sense devolution of government to jury-like small communities helps explain why America ended up with such diverse local political and even religious structures (since local decision makers, if they decided they no longer agreed with the principles of the church in their town, were free to leave and start a new one). It was only when modernity made it harder and harder to live by Common Sense principles that the myth of the hyper-independent cowboy began to capture popular imagination.
Ironically, modernity (supported by an Industrial Revolution that found its greatest success in the US) offered individuals the material ability to survive autonomously while simultaneously creating a society too complicated for either the individual or the Common Sense community to understand, much less manage or control.
As new factories, machines, railroads and commercial systems widened the horizon for Americans, they also created new roles that had to be filled by experts trained in increasingly specialized fields. And a new philosophy, Pragmatism – birthed by the eccentric Charles Sanders Peirce but brought to practical fruition by his successors – focused on what worked (vs. the more abstract belief systems around which Continental European societies were forming). And what worked in the US was the use of education (a higher percentage of Americans received and continue to receive a college education than do citizens of any other nation), education which facilitated an expansion of expertise into every walk of American life.
So even as Americans were rewriting their past around the sacredness of the individual, autonomous actor, an increasingly complex world facilitated by expanding managerial and bureaucratic classes was pushing decision making ever further away from the Common Sense community.
This is why “small town life” today involves local decision makers doing little more than negotiating contracts with professionalized policemen, garbage collectors and educators. And while our democracy means citizens get to vote on who holds these (as well as state and national) offices, lack of civic participation (unknown during the Common Sense era) means that winners of those elections have become just one more class of “professional” incumbents who get and hold power through relationships with other professionalized segments of society (including scientifically trained campaign professionals).
Understanding these intellectual roots casts a new light on much of what passes for contemporary political debate. When government expands into a new sector, does this represent an increase in democratic accountability or an expansion of power by a segment of society where democracy has been “hollowed out” by a century of modernity? Are conservatives trying to conserve a Common Sense past (one that was intensely communitarian) or an individualism that modernity facilitated materially but trapped inside a matrix of interdependencies that are only too apparent in our hyper-connected age?
And this is just one set of illuminating ideas brought to life in American Intellectual History (discussion of others – including religion, Darwinism and race – would make this review go on almost as long as the course itself).
Like many iTunes courses, this one is missing a couple of lectures (notably those involving classroom use of copyrighted materials), and the only site I could find for the live class didn’t include a detailed syllabus. And like many a survey class, subjects towards the end (when professors tend to rush to the finish line) were to be covered in less depth (Professor Smith’s discussions of Conservative philosophy were the most perfunctory in the course).
All that said, my thinking regarding matters political and cultural related to being an American underwent a profound shift after taking a class which revealed the hidden origins and meaning of so much of what we today take for granted. And no learning experience can be more powerful than that.
Degree of Freedom Progress Report
Just a quick note to say that I’m planning to update an In the News Section I created on the Degree of Freedom site a while back (but haven’t kept up) with videos from any of the talks or panels I’ve been doing that are published online.
And speaking of talks, if anyone is planning to attend the upcoming Digital Media and Learning (DML) Conference at the end of this week, look me up (I’ve participating in a panel discussion Friday at 9 AM).
Hope to see some of you there.
This Week's Issue – Unknown Unknowns
The very ambiguity of MOOCs these days is what makes them more interesting than ever.
It’s hard to imagine that just twelve months ago, the debate was over whether kids heading off to college would continue to shell out hundreds of thousands of their parents’ money to do so, or instead take courses from many of the schools they could or could not get into for free.
Hope for such a future fueled the initial MOOC hype, just as fear over that same future fueled the MOOC backlash. But as those debates were playing out, it turned out that (1) the age group that might take such an alternative route to higher education represented just a small percentage of MOOC students and (2) of the 18-22 year olds who were taking MOOC courses, almost none of them did so as a substitute for a traditional college program.
As realization that we really didn’t know who was taking MOOC classes and why began to seep into the conversation, we’ve ended up at an intriguing point where it's hard to argue that the world’s best colleges and universities sharing their best courses with the world for free is bad thing. But even the most enthusiastic participants in the MOOC movement are scratching their heads wondering what this good thing consists of.
It’s incumbent upon anyone writing a book these days on issues that intersect with public policy (like education) to come up with their prescription for the future. But rather than put together my own bulleted list when getting to the concluding chapter of my upcoming MIT Press book on MOOCs, I instead looked at massive open learning through the lens of three potential communities of learners: college age kids, older learners and non-traditional learning communities. And in the next three newsletters, I’d like to take a close look at each of these three categories in more detail.