The Washington Post

An undergraduate education in one course?

Students at Harvard, Yale and Bard College participated in an experimental a course this fall that takes the notion of a core curriculum to its logical extreme.

The course is called Great Big Ideas, and it purports to survey the entire landscape of intellectual discourse in a single semester.

Here is Saul Levmore, a University of Chicago scholar, with an introduction to economics. And Nicholas Christakis from Harvard on sociology. And Jeffrey Brenzel from Yale on the classics. And Bard President Leon Botstein on art.

(And here is a promotional video for the course.)

Each scholar is presented in glossy video lectures, a format that exploits the latest in “distance learning” technology. Flesh-and-blood professors led the courses at the three universities, but the content is available to the public online (a six-month “subscription” costs $130) from its publisher, the Floating University.

Each school offered the course for credit, and the response from students was impressive: according to the publisher, 300 students each registered for the course at Harvard and Yale and 500 at Bard, for 18 available slots.

The Floating University Web site bills the course as “a survey of twelve major fields delivered by their most important thinkers and practitioners.”It’s sort of like the core curriculum offered at UChicago and Columbia, but compressed into a single course.

In the first lecture, on demographics, Columbia scholar Joel Cohen asks, “Are People the Problem, the Solution, or Both?” By the second week, students will have “The Universe in a Nutshell: The Physics of Everything.” Week 9 brings Harvard scientist Douglas Melton and, “Is Biomedical Research Really Close to Curing Anything?”

The Yale Daily News called the course “Yale’s hottest residential college seminar” and likened it to a restaurant sampler platter.

Adam Glick, the Yale alumnus who designed the lessons, told the campus paper, “We’re delivering something that’s purposefully an inch deep and a mile wide. That’s the opposite of most education, where you look at something in a very narrow field.”

Glick’s collaborator in the Floating University is Peter Hopkins, a Harvard grad who started a web site called Big Think to “master and manage the universe of information”.

The point of the new course seems to be to introduce students, every week, to a broad discipline and the big questions it has spawned. If they want the answers, well, they may have to sign up for another course.


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