It ended in early April 149 years ago. But it begins again on Wednesday. Columbia University’s “The Civil War and Reconstruction,” the latest salvo in the MOOC wars, opens Wednesday, September 17, for free to the world – a 27-week series of three courses on the nonprofit edX platform taught by Eric Foner, the university’s Pulitzer-Prize winning history professor and one of the world’s leading experts on 19th-century America. You can enroll for free here.
“If you want to know where the world you’re living in today comes from,” Foner says in the series promotional trailer, “you need to know about the Civil War era.“ Headline issues of the moment – black-white race relations first among them, but also more general issues of equal justice under law, the power and proper role of government, and how lawmakers should deal with extremism, terror, and violence – all find roots in this conflict and its aftermath, a four-year war that saw approximately 700,000 Americans killed, and scores more injured, at the hands of their countrymen.
Foner’s general history books on the subject have sold thousands of copies – his new work on the underground railroad publishes in January – and he’s the author of the leading American history textbook taught in U.S. high schools. He’s crossed over from academe into mainstream media in other ways – with appearances on The Daily Show with John Stewart, The Colbert Report, The Charlie Rose Show, Bill Moyers’s Journal, and more.
Columbia’s effort in free history education on screen dates back decades – as Foner makes clear in the promo video. Columbia’s history professors Richard Hofstadter and James Patrick Shenton reached thousands of people in their books and lectures, with Shenton even teaching a 76-part survey course on WNET Public Television called “The Rise of the American Nation” – which premiered in 1963! But many of the great lecturers from this university – literary critics and scholars Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling, art historian Meyer Shapiro, and others – were never filmed systematically, and Foner, who will formally retire from teaching in a few years, was determined to ensure his courses were recorded, well-produced, and preserved for posterity – and available as educational resources to all.
The series, generously supported by Columbia’s provost, historian John Coatsworth, is produced by the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL), coincidentally celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. It’s the university’s first set of online courses on edX, after more than a dozen MOOCs on Coursera – and with more to come on both. The course promises some tantalizing new perspectives on the world then and now – as the two highlights reels show above.
Come & enlist – oops! - that is, enroll – today!
Peter B. Kaufman works at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning and is Executive Producer of Intelligent Television and YouTube's Intelligent Channel.