Selling Justice

Via Leiter, I see the San Jose philosophy department is complaining in an open letter to Michael Sandel that an MIT/Harvard-affiliated company proposed that the department pilot Sandel's "blended online" course, Justice.  I'm intrigued, since I used his book, Justice, to teach Contemporary Moral Problems this semester.  I had to miss several classes, so I also had my class watch one of his online lectures (and I watched others).

The subtext to the letter is a cogent thought: "This kind of thing is a threat to our jobs and to students taking real world, interactive courses."  Fair enough.  Professors need jobs, and students are usually better off taking courses with real world instructors.   On the other hand (let's admit), there's got to be a cash-strapped school somewhere that would serve its students well by showing them the Justice lecture series.  And the quality concerns expressed in the letter are really quite groundless.

Let's see, there's the worry that the series isn't current.  That could become true some day, but for the moment, the series/book is very current.  Sandel talks about all of the issues that are typical in a Contemporary Moral Problems course, and then some. He also talks about "markets and morals" (the topic of his latest book)--which involves all sorts of very topical and colorful questions.  He talks about all of these issues using far more ethical and political theory than is typical in a course like this, and with a single, unifying voice (as opposed to the multitude of voices and styles you get in a typical anthology).  Certainly Harvard students are lucky to be able to take Sandel's course.

Another worry is that a lecture series "does not provide anything over and above assigning a book to read."  What a strange thing to say, just a paragraph after the authors note Sandel's excellent skill at lecturing and his lively interactions with students. No, watching a lively lecture and debate is not just like reading a book.  More specifically, Justice the book is much more dense than Justice the lecture series. One is not at all equivalent to the other.

Then there's the point that Sandel and his students at Harvard are a bunch of white people--there isn't the diversity you could find in a real, live classroom.  But wait--I thought the idea was to show this in a real, live classroom. If there were teaching assistants facilitating discussion, I think students would hear diverse points of view.  And besides, the Harvard classroom isn't that uniform. In the lecture my students watched, students actually drew on their rather different life experiences.

I can imagine situations in which this course would be a good purchase for a college or school district.  So why protest (to Sandel) the mere selling of it?  Should a department not only decline the series for itself, but work to make it unavailable to others? Strange!

Postscript. Not to be too zealous.  I do have one complaint about Justice (the book): Sandel blurs together questions about ethics (what should I do?) and questions about justice (what is fair in this society?). All moral questions, for him, come under the murky term "justice", leaving students without tools to think clearly about distinct topics and questions.  That's a fairly serious negative, but still... I find it hard to complain too much about a book so well written and so stuffed with interesting, colorful examples. 

Update: article on the issue in today's NYT.


Wayne said...

Full disclosure, I graduated from SJSU's philosophy program.

I think the force of the letter is about a general movement in higher education, at least one that is very much palpable in California. If we can buy these MOOCs and have students take the courses, why do we need to pay an adjunct faculty member? Why even have a philosophy department other than to offer these MOOCs? It would save a boatload of money.

If this is true in philosophy, imagine what how true it would be in "hard sciences" like chemistry, and physics, or even in basic skills like math.

It's really good that there is push back against this, and making people stop and really evaluate the pedagogical value of these MOOCs.

Jean Kazez said...

But, but, but...

From a student point of view, what is better? Getting taught by an overworked, underpaid adjunct/graduate student or watching Sandel (great lecturer) plus participating in discussion sessions? I don't think there's just one answer to this, so don't follow arguing against selling this package. You can argue against buying it in some specific case, but the letter is protesting against the selling of it. That's going too far!

Wayne said...

From a student's perspective what would be better? I'm not sure it matters... Education is one of the very few institutions that doesn't deliver anything that the typical consumer wants (I'm making an assumption that students typically don't want to be educated.... they do want transferable units and degrees though). Students pay in advance and may get NOTHING except for an F. Students may want alternative ways of taking courses that might be easier, or more convenient.

I'm afraid that the problem with selling this is that it warps the institution entirely. Students don't need to sit in lecture or have human interaction to learn. They can read a book, and watch a video, and get a degree. It takes the human out of the humanities. It encourages rote memorization and homogenous curriculum. So I think there is a real worry behind the idea that it shouldn't be sold at all.

swallerstein said...

Sandel is so brilliant and such a good speaker that watching him is a privilege.

I don't see why students can't watch Sandel's lectures and then discuss them with their usual professor.

I have seen very few people who are as bright, as thoughtful, and as ethically committed as Sandel and at the same time such fantastic communicators.

The difference between Sandel and most lecturers is like the difference between Daniel Barenboim and the local talent show.