Carl Sagan’s Syllabus & Final Exam for His Course on Critical Thinking (Cornell, 1986)

Though now more than twenty years gone, Carl Sagan, through his many books and his classic television series Cosmoscontinues to teach us all he knew about life, the universe, and everything. Three decades' worth of students will also remember learning from him in person, in the lecture halls of Harvard and Cornell where he kept up his professorial duties alongside the considerable demands of his career as a public intellectual. If you've ever learned anything from Sagan, whether from the man himself or from his work, you know he didn't just want to teach humanity about outer space: he wanted to teach humanity how to think.

That goal became explicit in Astronomy 490, also known as "Critical Thinking in Science and Non-Science Context," which Sagan taught at Cornell in 1986. You can read its course materials at the Library of Congress, whose Jennifer Harbster writes that they "include mention of the important balance between openness to new ideas and skeptical engagement with those ideas in science," a point that "animates much of Carl Sagan’s work as an educator and science communicator."




The LoC offers the course's introduction and syllabus, its final exam, and Sagan's lecture notes, as well as the information he assembled to design the course in the first place, which show just how wide a range of contexts for critical thinking he had in mind.

Sagan collected examples of reporting on and public perception of phenomena related to sports playoff seriescar-loan interest rates, tobacco industry-sponsored tobacco health-risk research, and the number of helicopters that crash in Los Angeles. Harbster explains that "these notes illustrate how he wanted to use students' every day experience with things like television to prompt them to think more skeptically about how claims are made and warranted in everyday life." Though some of his examples  (the language of cigarette advertisements, for instance) may look dated now, the course's core principles have only grown more useful, and indeed necessary, with time — as Sagan, who wrote darkly of "the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media," surely knew they would.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

MIT’s New Master’s Program Admits Students Without College and High School Degrees … and Helps Solve the World’s Most Pressing Problems

One of the central problems of inequality is that it perpetuates itself by nature. The inherent social capital of those born in certain places and classes grants access to even more social capital. Questions of merit can seem marginal when the credentials required by elite institutions prove inaccessible to most people. In an admirable effort to break this cycle globally, MIT is now admitting students to a graduate program in economics, without GRE scores, without letters of recommendation, and without a college degree. 

Instead students begin with something called a "MicroMasters" program, which is like “a method used in medicine… randomized control trials,” reports WBUR. This entryway removes many of the usual barriers to access by allowing students to first "take rigorous courses online for credit, and if they perform well on exams, to apply for a master’s degree program on campus"—a degree in data, economics and development policy (DEDP), which focuses on methods for reducing global inequality.

 

 

Enrollment in the online MicroMasters courses began in February of last year (the next round starts on February 6, 2018), and the DEDP master's program will start in 2019. “The world of development policy has become more and more evidence-based over the past 10-15 years,” explains MIT professor of economics Ben Olken, who co-created the program with economics professors Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee. “Development practitioners need to understand not just development issues, but how to analyze them rigorously using data. This program is designed to help fill that gap.”

Duflo, co-founder of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), explains the innovation of MicroMasters' radically open admissions. (For anyone with access to the internet, that is, still a huge barrier for millions worldwide): “Anybody could do that. At this point, you don’t need to have gone to college. For that matter, you don’t need to have gone to high school.” Students who are accepted after their initial online course work will move into a “blended” program that combines their prior work with a semester on MIT's campus.

MicroMasters courses are priced on a sliding scale (from $100 to $1,000), according to what students can afford, and costs are nowhere near what traditional students pay—after having already paid, or taken loans, for a four-year degree, various testing regimens, admissions costs, living expenses, etc. The current program might feasibly be scaled up to include other fields in the future. Thus far, over 8,000 students in the world have enrolled in the MicroMasters program. “In total,” Duflo says, “there are 182 countries represented,” including ten percent from China, a large group from India, and “even some from the U.S.”

Students enrolled in these courses design their own evaluations of initiatives around the globe that address disparities in healthcare, education, and other areas. Co-designed by the Poverty Action Lab and the Department of Economics, MicroMasters asks students to “grapple with some of the world’s most pressing problems," including the problem of access to higher education. You can view the requirements and enroll at the MITx MicroMasters’ site. Read frequently asked questions and learn about the instructors here. And here, listen to WBUR’s short segment on this fascinating educational experiment.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Enroll in Seven Free Courses From the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA): “Modern Art & Ideas,” “Seeing Through Photographs” & “Fashion as Design” Start Today

If you would like to know more about modern art, but have difficulty wrapping your head around the Futurists, Neo-Impressionists, Abstract Expressionists, and the myriad other -ists and -isms  of this vast subject, perhaps you should untether yourself from timelines.

Modern Art & Ideas, a free online course from the Museum of Modern Art (aka MoMA), shifts the focus away from period and movement, instead grouping works according to four themes: Places & Spaces, Art & Identity, Transforming Everyday Objects, and Art & Society.

It’s an approach that’s worked well for MoMA’s Education Department. (Another upcoming online class, Art & Ideas: Teaching with Themes, is recommended for professional educators looking to develop the pedagogical skills the department employs to get visitors to engage with the art.)

The course, which begins today, is taught by Lisa Mazzola, Assistant Director of the museum’s School and Teacher Programs and a veteran of their previous forays into Massive Open Online Courses.

An early lesson on how artists capture environments considers three works: Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889), Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43), and Gordon Matta-Clark’s Bingo. Vintage photos and footage conspire with period music to whisk students to the settings that inspired these works—a bucolic French mental hospital, New York City’s bustling, WWII-era Times Square, and a derelict house in down on its luck Niagara Falls.

Regular readers of Open Culture are likely to have a handle on some of the ways art stars Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol explored identity, the course's third week theme, but what about Glenn Ligon, a living African American conceptual artist?

Ligon may not have the renown or tote bag appeal of his lessonmates, but his 1993 series, Runaways, is powerful enough to hold its own against Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair and Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe.

In fact, teachers looking to expand their Black History Month curriculum could spark some lively discussions by showing students the extremely accurate facsimiles of 19th-century runaway slave ads featuring physical descriptions of Ligon, solicited from friends who'd been told they were supplying details for a hypothetical Missing Person poster.

Ligon’s series is also a good starting place for discussing conceptual art with a friend who thinks  conceptual art is best defined as White Cow in a Snowstorm.

Offered on Coursera, the 5-week course requires approximately 2 hours of study and one quiz per week. Enroll here, or browse MoMAs other current offerings also on Coursera:

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Coursera. If readers enroll in certain Coursera courses, it helps support Open Culture.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Nine Tips from Bill Murray & Cellist Jan Vogler on How to Study Intensely and Optimize Your Learning

Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons

Would you take study tips from Bill Murray? After high school, he did spend some time as a pre-medical student at Regis University in Denver — before dropping out to return to his hometown of Chicago and get his start in comedy with the famed improv group Second City. Still, Regis did eventually award him an honorary Doctor of Humanities a decade ago, and you have to admit that the fame-and-fortune path worked out for him. In fact, it worked out and then some: seeing the massive success of Ghostbusters (and the temptations thereof) looming in 1984, Murray decided to make his return to school, this time to study philosophy, history, and French — and at the Sorbonne, no less.

The Spotify playlist below offers brief selections of spoken-word wisdom related to studying and learning in general, part of the fruit of a project by Murray and German cellist Jan Vogler. (If you don't have Spotify's free software, you can download it here.)




They recently made an album together called New Worlds, where the sounds of Vogler's classical trio accompany Murray's voice, singing and reading classic works of American music and literature from Mark Twain to Van Morrison. They also recorded this selection of memories, galvanizing messages, and "intense study tips" briefly summarized as follows: "Don't cram," "Concentrate," "One problem," "Sleep on it," "Take a bath," "Focus on others," "More is more," "Take a break," and "Build a routine."

Listen to the playlist and you can hear Murray expand on these suggestions, some of which will resonate with material we've previously featured here on Open Culture: the psychological phenomenon that has us do our best thinking in the shower (or indeed the bath), for instance, or the intellectual foundations of Murray's comedic persona. If you find his advice useful, you might also look to the example he sets with how he runs his career, famously taking risks on untested ideas or collaborators (including a certain Wes Anderson) and going to great lengths (up to and including replacing his agent with a voicemail box) to avoid getting caught in the gears of his industry. Whether studying a subject or becoming the most beloved comic actor of your generation, in other words, you've got to find a path that works for you and you alone. As one track of Murray and Vogler's helpful playlist puts it, "Good luck."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How a Liberal Arts Education Helped Derek Black, the Godson of David Duke, Break with the White Nationalist Movement

Image of Ron Paul, Don Black, Derek Black (right), via Wikimedia Commons

A native of West Palm Beach, Florida, Derek Black grew up in one of the most prominent white nationalist families in the United States. He's the son of Don Black, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. And he's the godson of David Duke, "the most recognizable figure of the American radical right, a neo-Nazi, longtime Klan leader and now international spokesman for Holocaust denial" (per the Southern Poverty Law Center). In short, Derek Black had every reason to grow up a racist, and remain a racist from cradle to grave. But things didn't turn out that way.

Below, you can hear Black explain how, as a young adult, he broke with white nationalism, leaving behind his family, friends and community. What laid the groundwork for that break? Going to a small liberal arts college, encountering new ideas, and meeting different people. In this recorded interview, he tells Michael Barbaro of The New York Times:

In 2010, I moved across the state and started college at this little liberal arts college in Florida, which was about three and a half hours from home and it was the first time that I had lived away from home. Nobody knew who I was and I did not volunteer who I was or anything about my background, I made friends, hung out with people and played my guitar on my balcony in my dorm. It was nice to come back from class and be able to talk about history or philosophy or whatever other subject and be around other people....

I had a friend on campus who I had gotten to know during my first semester when nobody knew who I was, he was an observant Jew who had Shabbat dinners pretty regularly whenever he was in town on Friday night and he would invite people of atheists and all sorts of different religions. It was just a nice dinner. And so he actually invited me to one of the Shabbats, and I knew him, and so I brought wine...

He had read my posts on Stormfront [a white nationalist website created by Don Black] going back years — even the stuff when I was a teenager — and he doubted that he was going to convince me of anything, he just wanted to let me see a Jewish community thing so that if I was going to keep saying these anti-Semitic things that at least I had seen real Jews.

It was ultimately in private conversations with a person I met at the Shabbat dinners … we would talk about things. Not only white nationalism, but eventually white nationalism. And I would say, “This is what I believe about I.Q. differences, I have 12 different studies that have been published over the years, here’s the journal that’s put this stuff together, I believe that this is true, that race predicts I.Q. and that there were I.Q. differences in races.” And they would come back with 150 more recent, more well researched studies and explain to me how statistics works and we would go back and forth until I would come to the end of that argument and I’d say, Yes that makes sense, that does not hold together and I’ll remove that from my ideological toolbox but everything else is still there. And we did that over a year or two on one thing after another until I got to a point where I didn’t believe it anymore.

As you stream the interview below, spend some time thinking about the transformative power of a liberal arts education. Yes, more than an expedient business degree, it can change hearts and save lives.

Also pay attention to Black's final thoughts on what Trump's response to the Charlottesville drama did for the White nationalist movement: "I think Tuesday was the most important moment in the history of the modern white nationalist movement." Trump "said there were good people in the white nationalist rally and he salvaged their message."

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What’s a Scientifically-Proven Way to Improve Your Ability to Learn? Get Out and Exercise

Wikimedia Commons Image by the U.S. Navy

The benefit, nay necessity, of physical exercise is undeniable. The medical community has identified sedentary lifestyles as an epidemic, sometimes called “sitting disease” (or as people like to say, “sitting is the new smoking”). Prolonged sitting has been established as a cause of all sorts of chronic illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, and even certain cancers. Combine this problem with the steady stream of processed foods in more and more diets and we have a full-blown public health crisis on our hands that requires some serious intervention on the part of doctors, dieticians, physical therapists, and scientists.

And as more and more researchers are finding out, a poor diet and lack of exercise can also have seriously harmful effects on the brain. Conversely, as a recent University of California study shows, exercise boosts brain function; it “enhances learning and memory, improves executive function” and “counteracts… mental decline.” To put the theory of enhanced learning to the test, researchers have conducted several experiments and found that physical activity can improve the ability to learn new things at nearly any age.

Studies have “found correlations between children’s aerobic fitness and their brain structure,” reports The New York Times, and kids who exercise before math and reading tests show consistently higher scores than their sedentary peers. Likewise, a study conducted with college students in Ireland found that participants performed significantly better on memory tests after 30 minutes of cycling. One likely explanation is that exercise increases the production of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor), a protein that promotes nerve health. And in a new paper published by researchers from Italy, China, and Thailand, we find that that exercise can specifically improve the ability to learn new languages.

The study tested 40 college-age Chinese students who are learning English. One group remained sedentary, while another rode exercise bikes at a moderate pace both before and during study sessions. The students who biked performed better on 8 separate vocabulary tests and were better able to recognize correct English sentences. These results are similar to those of a recent German study which found that a group of young women riding exercise bikes, at slow and moderate paces, performed much better on vocabulary tests than another group who didn’t exercise.




Though The New York Times points to a different study with contrasting results, the evidence seems largely on the side of exercise-enhances-learning proponents. “In recent years,” the Times notes, “a wealth of studies in both animals and people have shown that we learn differently if we also exercise.” You’ll find many of those studies summarized at the BBC, The Guardian, and elsewhere, along with several possible explanations for the phenomenon. Psychologist Justin Rhodes notes that “aerobic exercise can actually reverse hippocampal shrinkage,” increasing gray matter in an area of the brain associated with memory and emotion. His contention is backed by recent research on mice and humans.

In any case, although it appears that more vigorous exercises like cycling and running create the most improvement, taking a brisk walk before a class or study session can also help with retention and alertness. Whatever kind of exercise one does, a simple “take-home message,” says one researcher, “may be that instruction should be flanked by physical activity. Sitting for hours and hours without moving is not the best way to learn.” Having trouble getting motivated to run or bike before you study for that math test or start a new language course? Take some advice from Harvard Medical School on how to start slowly, find something you like doing, and turn everyday activities into exercise.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Illustrated Guide to a PhD: 12 Simple Pictures That Will Put the Daunting Degree into Perspective

Matthew Might, a computer science professor at the University of Utah, writes: "Every fall, I explain to a fresh batch of Ph.D. students what a Ph.D. is. It's hard to describe it in words. So, I use pictures." In his Illustrated Guide to the PhD, Professor Might creates a visual narrative that puts the daunting degree into perspective. Anyone who has already pursued a Ph.D. will see the wisdom in it. (Or at least I did.) And young, aspiring academics would be wise to pay it heed.

You can see a condensed version of the the illustrated guide above. Or follow it in a larger format below.

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:

By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:

By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:

With a bachelor's degree, you gain a specialty:

A master's degree deepens that specialty:

Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:

Once you're at the boundary, you focus:

You push at the boundary for a few years:

Until one day, the boundary gives way:

And, that dent you've made is called a Ph.D.:

Of course, the world looks different to you now:

So, don't forget the bigger picture:

Keep pushing.

You can find Matt's Illustrated Guide hosted on his web site. This guide/reality check is published under a Creative Commons License. You can also buy a print version for $6.50. The money goes to charity.

This guide first appeared on our site in 2012. But, with all of the wisdom it packs into a small space, it seemed worth bringing back.

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