Begun in 2011 by Big Think and the Jack Parker Corporation, The Floating University is an online educational initiative that debuted at Harvard, Yale, and Bard College. The purpose of The Floating University, according to its site, is to “democratize access to the world’s best thinkers” by providing free, approximately one hour-long courses on a wide range of topics, taught at a university level by experts and professors in the various fields. The inaugural course, the most favored at the three universities, is Great Big Ideas, and it more or less does what it says: tackles some of the largest, most perplexing questions in digestible introductions that also manage to be rigorous, informative, and thought-provoking.
In the lecture above, for example, Harvard cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker presents an “eSeminar” in linguistics, addressing dogged questions in the field over whether or not humans have an innate, universal grammar (as Noam Chomsky has famously argued); why language is so fundamental to our social relationships; and how language evolved.
Pinker, who describes human language in broad terms as a “miracle” and a “window into the human mind,” also gets into the specific subfields of linguistics, discussing them in terms that any layperson can understand without much diluting the fascinating philosophical and scientific debates around what Darwin called our “instinctive tendency to speak” to one another, from infancy onward, all over the world, in some 6000 different languages.
- Malthus Miffed: Are People the Problem, the Solution, or Both? An Introduction to Demography and Populations Study Through an Examination of the World’s Population. by Joel Cohen (Columbia).
- The Universe in a Nutshell: The Physics of Everything. by Michio Kaku (CUNY).
- Of the People, by the People, for the People? The Rawls-Nozick Debates as an Introduction to the Philosophy of Politics and Economics. by Tamar Gendler (Yale)
- Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200: Monopolies as an Introduction to Economics. by Saul Levmore (U Chicago)
- The Psychology of Everything: What Compassion, Racism, and Sex tell us about Human Nature. by Paul Bloom (Yale)
- If You’re So Free, Why Do You Follow Others? The Sociological Science Behind Social Networks and Social Influence. by Nicholas Christakis (Harvard)
- Who Wants to Be a Billionaire? Everything You Need to Know About Finance and Investing in Under an Hour. by William Ackman
- What’s Up, Doc? Is Biomedical Research Really Close to Curing Anything? by Douglas Melton (Harvard)
- Art Now: Aesthetics Across Music, Painting, Architecture, Movies, and More. by Leon Boststein (Harvard)
- Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Essential Value of a Classic Education. by Jeffrey Brenzel (Yale)
- The Authority of Ideas: Decoding the DNA of Education in Search of Actual Knowledge. by Lawrence Summers (Harvard)
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.