‘Just’ Not Enough

Viewers of Prof. Sandel’s new TV series don’t get the real Harvard experience, but do we?

This Thursday, the third episode of Professor Michael Sandel’s course “Moral Reasoning 22: Justice” will air on Boston’s WGBH. Though Harvard is still a latecomer to the realm of public access education—schools like MIT and Yale have offered podcast courses through Apple’s iTunes U for years—in general, media reactions to Sandel’s television series have been positive. Most laud it for supporting freedom of information and combating the exclusivity of the Ivy League education; some even go so far as to hail such open access as the end of Old Academia.

While the Internet has already made it difficult for subscription services like newspapers to compete, writers argue a similar transformation will occur with the university. Now that Harvard and other top universities are putting their content online, the argument goes, the physical university will become a relic. A high-quality classroom experience is open to anyone with a computer.

The point is fair, but it raises unsettling questions for those of us paying 50 grand a year to be here. Are there any benefits to being at college beyond Sunday morning hangover brunches? In most large lecture classes, one rarely, if ever, gets face-time with a professor. What privileges do Harvard undergraduates have over listeners tuning in to podcasted lectures from 3,000 miles away?

The answer is simple, but often overlooked. What programs like WGBH cannot provide is a factor that Harvard students may well take for granted: that of other Harvard students. One big reason why “Justice” draws upward of 1000 students every semester is its interactive experience—Sandel poses ethical quandaries to his lecture audience, they respond to him and to each other, and this back-and-forth lends a crackling excitement to the proceedings. Viewers at home sitting in front of screen can’t engage in this themselves: They can only watch as some undergrad in the third row defends his decision to push or not push a man off a bridge. Only students actually in class can go beyond merely passive experience to get actively involved in learning.

The value of peers in learning is nothing new. Though the advent of printing permitted communication among networks of philosophes and thinkers during the Enlightenment, it was nonetheless through debate in academies and salons that intellectual discourse advanced. Similarly, though we can get much out of reading on our own or watching lecture videos online during reading period, it is in conversation with peers that our views solidify and gain clarity.


Keeping this in mind makes every second spent on Facebook, Gmail, or in section even more regrettable. It’s not just our own learning experience we’re hurting by not paying attention; when we skip readings, give rehearsed answers for participation points, or tune out our TFs entirely, we’re cutting down on other people’s opportunities for discussion as well.

Nor are professors entirely blameless. With more courses videotaped and slides posted online, lectures tend to see declining attendance as the semester progresses. Lecturers bear a responsibility to their students to create an experience for students beyond just what can be videotaped and recycled year-to-year. That means getting the audience involved in some way—whether it be through interactive demonstrations, projects, or in-class discussions like Sandel’s.

None of this is to say that we should stop videotaping. More courses will and should follow “Justice” in being adapted to television or podcast; disseminating knowledge into the public sphere is part of Harvard’s academic responsibility to share information. But such measures should be taken with the understanding that Internet videos or podcasts will never result in the same level of critical thinking as face-to-face discussion and debate. The value of the Harvard experience transcends lectures that can be videotaped and study guides that can be posted online; it is rooted in the dialogues that transpire in sections and study groups. In the end, these are the factors that must take precedence if we are to justify actually being here.

Ashin D. Shah ’12, a Crimson photographer, is an applied mathematics and economics concentrator in Pforzheimer House.


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