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.
at 4:12 PM