Campus beat: Professor leads online trip to the Stone Age
- Article by: Maura Lerner
- Star Tribune
- September 4, 2013 - 7:04 PM
Do you ever wonder why the Neanderthals disappeared?
Why, of all the species of early humans who once roamed the Earth, are we the only ones who lived to tell the tale?
Prof. Yuval Noah Harari argues that it’s really quite strange, if you think about it. And, he says pointedly, “a bit suspicious.”
I’ve never met Prof. Harari, and probably never will, since he’s some 6,000 miles away at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But a few weeks ago, when I started my new beat as higher-education reporter, I signed up for his class.
I wanted to sample a MOOC — a massive open online course — and stumbled onto Harari’s “A Brief History of Humankind.”
It’s still too early to tell whether MOOCs will be the revolutionary force that some predict — rendering colleges and universities obsolete. But the free courses that have sprung up on sites like Coursera can make you feel like a student again, with a worldwide syllabus.
I chose “A Brief History” because of its laughably grandiose title and an intriguing video introduction. Plus the requirements were easy: Watch 17 lectures in 17 weeks. That’s it.
In his opening talk, Harari, a historian, confidently lays out his game plan: “to offer you a complete overview of the whole of human history.”
“This sounds very ambitious,” he says. “And I promise you that it will be very superficial and very controversial.”
Ordinarily, I don’t wake up obsessing about life in the Stone Age. But listening to Harari, with his singsong accent, put his spin on how Homo sapiens became the “masters of the world” is a bit addictive. Week after week, he sits in a lounge chair in faded jeans, inviting students to wonder why human newborns are so helpless (“half-baked”); or how we managed to vanquish the brawny Neanderthals.
The term Homo sapiens, he tells us, means wise men. “This is the name we gave ourselves,” he said. “We may be very wise. But not very modest.”
It’s just Week Four; I wonder how the story ends.
© 2013 Star Tribune