I first heard of Michael Sandel in connection with two lectures he was to deliver in Tokyo. The lectures were free ; admission tickets were handed out on a first come – first served basis . So great was the demand for these lectures that some of these free tickets were being re-sold by scalpers for $ 5oo apiece. Imagine that.. $ 500 to attend a lecture by a university professor !! Intrigued , I read up on Professor Sandel.
Michael Sandel , 59, graduated from Brandeis and went on to get a doctorate from Oxford where he was a Rhodes scholar . He is a political philosopher and educator who has taught at Harvard for more than two decades and his course on Justice has been attended by more than 18,000 students . It is the most popular course taught at Harvard ; in fall 2007 , 1115 students took the course. The course was recorded in 2005 and an abridged version Justice : What’s the Right Thing to Do ? is available online absolutely free. It is this course that I ‘m currently enjoying and which I recommend that you check out , if you haven’t already done so. It consists of 12 lectures , each about 55 minutes long . Each lecture explores a single topic and is divided into two parts so you , the viewer , can take a break if you so wish.
The course introduces students to the ideas of philosophers such as Aristotle , Emmanuel Kant , Jeremy Bentham , John Stuart Mill and others . It explores such topics as placing a dollar value on human life , individual rights vs. freedom of choice , and compensating for injustices such as slavery and segregation.In other hands , these topics might result in boredom but not when Prof. Sandel tackles them .
Professor Sandel employs the Socratic method , laying out a scenario and asking his audience what they think is the right course of action . Whatever the answer is , he asks more questions which cause the students to think for themselves and examine their beliefs . The first lecture tackles this moral dilemma : If you had to choose between killing one person to save the lives of five others and doing nothing , what would you do ? Most students respond that the choice is clear-cut ; that sacrificing one life to save 5 others is the right thing to do . The professor then ups the ante : what if they had to kill the person themselves ? And so it goes …
I’m explaining the subject very poorly, but then words cannot describe the artistry of Professor Sandel’s classroom style. No wonder that his student audience is entranced , hanging on his every word .He has a very engaging personality and a calm unhurried way about him that makes his listeners immediately like him . When he speaks , his diction is so clear ,his explanations are so lucid , his train of thought so logical and his choice of words so perfect that his audience is swept along with him . The situations he postulates are also riveting. In the first lecture , for instance , he asks the students to imagine a runway trolley car whose brakes have failed. Directly in its path are five workers who are marked for certain death unless the trolley car can be diverted . The driver notices that there is a spur to one side where only one man is working. If he can guide the car onto the spur ( luckily, the steering wheel is working) , the five workers will be spared at the cost of the lone worker’s life . What should the trolley car driver do ? The answer is easy and most everyone agrees that he should swing the trolley onto the spur . Then Professor Sandel involves the students more directly in the decision-making : Imagine that you are standing on the bridge above the trolley line . Everything else is the same as before : speeding runaway trolley car, five workers in danger etc. Imagine that next to you is a very fat man leaning over the side of the bridge and you realize that if you tip him over in the path of the trolley car , it will be brought to a stop ( loud laughter from the students! ). NOW what’s the right thing to do ? This time the answer is not so easy to come by . And so it goes . Each question makes the audience think more deeply as Prof. Sandel introduces the philosophical argument he wants to explore.
Then again , there are other reasons to sample Professor Sandel’s lectures . For one , it gives us ordinary folk a chance to ” attend” a lecture , to ” sit ” among the students in a Harvard classroom. No matter what the U.S News and World Report rankings say in any given year , Harvard has a cachet which no other college has and this is a golden opportunity to see what it’s like . It’s also a chance to see what typical Harvard undergrads are like and , secretly , see how one stacks up against them ; perhaps dream of what might have been if only one had taken the SAT more seriously. ( LOL). Actually , I was mightily impressed with the student attendees at Prof. Sandel’s lecture . I thought that in, their responses to Prof Sandel’s probing questions , they were poised and articulate far beyond their years . However, THE main reason to check out this online course is to see a great teacher in action as he brings arcane philosophical concepts to life and illumines the minds of his listeners.
To access Professor Sandel’s course , click on www.justiceharvard.org or google Michael Sandel and check out his achievements and the other lectures available online. There are some BBC podcasts that seem very stimulating.