One of Harvard’s most popular and celebrated courses, “Justice” (Moral Reasoning 22), taught by Bass professor of government Michael J. Sandel, takes its tutelage outside the University’s walls this autumn with a three-pronged media package: a public television series, a hardcover book from Macmillan, and a content-rich website. The course, which enrolled nearly 900 undergraduates last fall—and has had about 14,000 students in all—will now ask millions more to ponder the question that forms the subtitle of both the book and the 12-week television series: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?
The television series, recorded during the 2005-06 academic year in Sanders Theatre, features lots of Socratic dialogue between Sandel and individual students as the professor explores hypothetical moral choices: Is a parent justified in stealing a drug for a child who needs it to survive? Would you avoid paying income taxes if there was no chance of being caught? Is torture defensible if it yields valuable information? The series cuts Sandel’s 24 original 50-minute sessions down to 30 minutes apiece to fit the 12-show format, but producer Loen Kelley, a 14-year veteran of CBS and currently a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, estimates that 75 percent of the lecture material survived; cuts included things like references to in-depth readings and tangential colloquies.
Justice is the first University lecture series made available to the public both online and on the air. (The Harvard Alumni Association did make the course available to alumni via streaming online video in 2007.) In this regard Harvard trails several other major universities, including MIT, Yale, and Stanford, which have offered numerous publicly accessible courses in the last couple of years. (MIT makes 1,900 online courses available.) In terms of production values, however, the Justice series, a venture of WGBH-TV in Boston, represents a quantum leap beyond its predecessors from other institutions, which have often been poorly shot one-camera videos with grainy texture and no student interaction. In contrast, three high-definition cameras remained in Sanders Theatre for the full semester to record the course, an expertly edited series with openers and teases. “It’s much snazzier,” Kelley says. “It looks much better than 99 percent of what’s out there.”