I am watching Season 8 of 24, the television series that has acquired a cult following. This is the one with Anil Kapoor (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) acting as the president of the fictional Islamic Republic of Kamistan. Like the previous seasons, this, too, is action-packed. The hero, Jack Bauer, has caught a terrorist but he has to extract from him the location of a nuclear bomb that will go off in a big city any moment. If you are into 24, you would have guessed what happens next, but the gut-wrenching scene does raise the question: Is it ethical to torture a suspect to get information?
Michael J. Sandel is a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, US, and an expert on ethical and moral dilemmas. Around 14,000 students have attended his undergraduate course on “Justice” in which he raises questions such as “Is torture ever justified?” and “Should we tax the rich to help the poor?” And he engages his packed class in what is the right thing to do.
I didn’t study at Harvard. Instead, I watched Sandel’s engrossing lectures on his Harvard website (www. justiceharvard.org). For someone with a deeper interest in issues of justice and morality, there are long reading lists with each lecture.
The good thing about technology is that you don’t have to enrol in a course and pay hefty fees to attend a class. Many big universities abroad are putting their courses and key lectures online. The University of California, Berkeley, US, has an entire course on “Human Emotion” taken by Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology. You can download the podcasts or webcasts of his lectures, and also watch a video where he talks about the importance of physical contact: A hug or a pat on the back, he says, can mean a lot more than you would ever imagine.
Thanks to technology, education is no longer confined to the classrooms of universities and colleges. Today, you can access 2,000 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) courses—from anthropology and aeronautics to brain and cognitive sciences—from the institute’s OpenCourseWare website. There’s even a class on the “Philosophy of Love in the Western World” and “The Anthropology of Cyber Cultures”.
If you enjoy physics, Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind has posted his lectures on “Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity” on YouTube. The Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE) programme, an online portal, offers engineering courses free of charge. You can even take a beginner’s course in artificial intelligence.
Academic Earth is a new organization whose goal is to “give everyone on earth access to a world-class education”. The brainchild of Richard Ludlow, a young man described as “one of America’s most promising social entrepreneurs” by BusinessWeek, Academic Earth is your one-stop shop for content across many subjects. It has hundreds of videos of lectures and other content from top American universities—MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
Ludlow has arranged the material in a manner that resembles a course curriculum. So you can take the Yale course on “Introduction to Dante”, or attend a class on the meaning of dreams and why we can’t tickle ourselves.
This is where I heard Sandel raise another question about moral dilemmas: Imagine, for a moment, you are a doctor and five injured people are brought to your hospital. One of them is in a critical condition. If you spend the whole day saving one, the other four will die; you spend your time looking after the four and one dies. What will you do?
On a website called The Science Network (www. thesciencenetwork.org), I heard a video lecture on why some people are happier than others. “Fifty per cent of a person’s happiness level is determined by our genes,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and a global expert on happiness. Around 10% “is affected by life circumstances” and one’s situation and the remaining 40% “is subject to self-control”.
Given the choice, I would rather be there sitting in the class. But I don’t have the time or resources to get a world-class education. So I do the next best thing: sit at home, go online and learn. Education has never been so easy and so much fun.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at firstname.lastname@example.org