Great Big Ideas: Free Course Features Top Thinkers Tackling the World’s Most Important Ideas in 12 Lectures

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.

The Great Big Ideas (now added to our list of 1200 Free Online Cours­es) lec­ture series con­sists of twelve lec­tures total, includ­ing Pinker’s. The oth­er eleven are:

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.

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