Morals Class Is Starting; Please Pass the Popcorn
Many of the 14,000 or so students who have taken Harvard’s wildly popular course “Justice” with Michael J. Sandel over the years have heard the rumor that their professor has a television avatar: Montgomery Burns, Homer Simpson’s soulless ghoul of a boss at Springfield’s nuclear power plant.
The joke, of course, is that Mr. Sandel — who at one time or another taught several future writers for Fox’s “Simpsons” and shares a receding hairline with the evil-minded cartoon character — is the anti-Burns, a moral philosopher who has devoted his life to pondering what is the right thing to do.
Now Mr. Sandal gets to play himself on television, not to mention online, as Harvard and public television stations across the country allow viewers to sit in on his classroom discussions about Wall Street bonuses and Aristotle, same-sex marriage and Kant, for the next 12 weeks.
Celebrity academics are not uncommon on television, and when it comes to the Web, Harvard lags behind Duke and Stanford, whose lectures are already available on iTunes U, and M.I.T., which developed its own software years ago to make classes available.
But what is new about Harvard’s venture, more than five years in the making, is that it is the first time that public broadcasters can remember a regular college course’s being presented on television. What’s more, it is also a highly produced multimedia event, with high-definition video, interactive Webcasts, podcasts, a new book and a speaking tour.
“We looked at what other universities had done and realized that they didn’t have the full classroom experience,” said Mr. Sandel, fresh from a recent appearance on NBC’s “Today” show. (He was sandwiched between a cooking demonstration and a segment on a turtle named Lucky.)
Watching a video that looks as if it were made with a convenience store security camera, as most Internet courses do, without the slides, syllabus and other materials available to actual students, dilutes the experience, Mr. Sandel said.
So, for “Justice,” Harvard set up extra lights and microphones in Sanders Theater, a stately, stadium-style hall. The classes were recorded in high-definition with three cameras to catch the student exchanges that are an essential part of the classroom experience.
Mr. Sandel also came up with an extended process to give students the option of appearing on tape or not. As it turns out, it was hardly necessary; scarcely anyone in the class objected to being on television, bad-hair day or not.
The lectures are not being televised live; they were taped in 2005 and 2006 and first used for Harvard’s Extension School and for alumni. In 2007 WGBH, the Boston public broadcaster, became involved.
“I’ve wanted to do Michael’s course for more than 20 years,” said Brigid Sullivan, vice president for educational programming at WGBH, which is co-producing the show. She learned of the famous class when she was a student at Harvard Business School.
This time the station was awarded a grant from POM Wonderful, the juice company, to put the course on the air, while Mr. Sandel raised the rest of the money — about $600,000 in all — much of it from former students. Each 50-minute class was edited down to 30 minutes; two are shown in each television episode.
Mr. Sandel, who regularly draws about 1,000 students to the course, doesn’t engage in flashy antics or use eye-catching props. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, he is more Bob Newhart than Montgomery Burns. He has honed his arguments, classroom methods and delivery over the nearly 30 years he has taught this class.
“The difficulty in this course is in teaching what you already know,” he tells his students. “It works by taking what we know from familiar, unquestioned settings and making it strange.”
Would you switch a runaway trolley from one track to another if it meant killing one person instead of five? Would it be just as moral to push a person in front of the speeding trolley to stop it and save the five? What about a surgeon killing one healthy person and using his organs so that five people who needed organ transplants could live? Is that moral? Why not?
“In a way, the book and the course try to model what public discourse would be like if it were more morally ambitious than it is,” Mr. Sandel said. “The title is ‘Justice,’ but in a way its subject is citizenship.”
Mr. Sandel emphasizes that “the aim is not to try to persuade students, but to equip them to become politically minded citizens.”
He has apparently succeeded, at least with some. “The course changed how I think about politics,” Vivek Viswanathan, who graduated in June, wrote in an e-mail message. “Questions of politics, Professor Sandel suggested, are not simply a matter of governing the system of distribution but are connected to what it means to live a ‘good life.’ ”
Steven E. Hyman, the university provost, said that Harvard had been searching for a while to find a way to deliver academic content, but “finding dynamic yet cost-effective ways to share the classroom experience beyond the university’s walls has been trickier than one might think.”
Mr. Sandel’s proposal, he added, “can serve as a working model for the dissemination of many courses.” He declined to say how much Harvard had spent on it.
Discussion is an essential part of the course, Mr. Sandel said, which is why the Web site, justiceharvard.org, offers beginner and advanced discussion guides. The first episode deals with utilitarianism, which maintains we should always do whatever will produce the greatest amount of happiness. “But is that right?,” the guide asks.
Suppose a terrorist will not reveal the location of a bomb “unless an innocent member of his family is tortured.”
“Should it be legal for the police to torture innocent people,” the guide continues, “if that is truly the only way to discover the location of a large bomb?”
In class, affirmative action arouses the strongest feelings, Mr. Sandel said, because students, who have worked very hard to reach Harvard, believe their own merit is being rewarded. They are disquieted, he said, by the philosopher John Rawls’s idea that many of their advantages have nothing to do with merit: American citizenship, fortunate family circumstances, a society that values what they are good at, whether it is telling jokes or having a great jump shot.
He tells the class that many psychologists think that birth order makes a lot of difference in one’s work ethic and degree of striving, and then asks: “How many here are first in birth order?” There are gasps and laughter. About 80 percent in the auditorium raise their hands. “Is it your doing that you are first in birth order?,” he continues.That moment, Mr. Sandel said, is often “a turning point” in getting students to question their own deeply held assumptions. New viewers and readers will undoubtedly find different moments when a light bulb suddenly turns on. “There is a journeylike quality to the course and the book,” he said, adding that he did not “want to spoil the sense of suspense and exploration” about where this journey leads.