The Future of Education. Review: Coursera “Greek and Roman Mythology”

I finished my first expedition into the world of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – this week. I have completed a 10 week course on Coursera run by a team led by Dr. Struck of Penn State University.  The course was titled Greek and Roman Mythology.

How was the experience?

Coursera: top universities courses online for everyone, for free

In four words: Hard work. Enriching. Fulfilling.

Coursera stated up front that the course would require 8-10 hours per week.  I assumed that given how smart I am (yes, the arrogance remains strong…), I would be able to do it in half the time…  but no.  I was wrong.  The course consisted of 1-2 hours of video lectures each week, 3-4 hours of readings and a 20 question multiple choice quiz covering the week’s learning.  Two short essays were required in week 6 and week 9.  I found myself submitting the second essay at 2:34am on a Sunday night.

The course was more work than I had expected.  The quizes required a dedication of attention that was far beyond the mere background watching of TED talks or other educational youtube videos.  The essays encouraged a deeper reflection on the material.

I learnt more in this 10 week online course than in my own university courses.  Firstly because the course is well designed and the structure doesn’t allow me to leave the hard work for the last week of the class.  Secondly, because I truly wanted to read these ancient myths and think about what they mean for us as human beings.

The role of the bricks and mortar university is going to change.  It is already changing. There is still an important role in bringing people physically together. There is still a role in certifying progress, in providing credentials.  However, the process of learning is not well served by 300 people in a lecture hall listening to an academic. Learning online, directly from the best, structured in an optimized digital format is the future of the knowledge and skill learning aspect of education.

What were we learning?

Coursera description: About the Greek and Roman Mythology Course

The Parthenon
The Parthenon

“This course will focus on the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, as a way of exploring the nature of myth and the function it plays for individuals, societies, and nations. We will also pay some attention to the way the Greeks and Romans themselves understood their own myths.

Are myths subtle codes that contain some universal truth? Are they a window on the deep recesses of a particular culture? Or are they just entertaining stories that people like to tell over and over?

This course will investigate these questions through a variety of topics, including the creation of the universe, the relationship between gods and mortals, human nature, religion, the family, sex, love, madness, and death.”

We read and analysed the following works during the class:

  • Homer, Odyssey
  • Hesiod, Theogony
  • Homeric Hymns to Apollo and Demeter
  • Aeschylus, Oresteia
  • Sophocles, Oedipus the King
  • Euripides, Bacchae
  • Vergil, Aeneid
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses.

My Final Essay. What relationship is at the core of Myth?

This is the last essay that I submitted for the course.  Finished at 2:34am on Sunday night.  Yep, flashbacks to my days of university were frequent 😉

Question: We’ve seen numerous kinds of relationships under scrutiny in the myths we have studied: (1) relationships between humans and the divine; (2) familial relationships, e.g., fathers and sons, husbands and wives, mothers and sons, etc.; (3) relationships between individuals and communities; (4) relationships between the individual and himself/herself. For this essay, you need to decide which ONE of these 4 types of relationships is most important for the myths we have read, and explore why it is so. Of course, a wise person will see that there is at least some importance in all of them, but for this question, you must choose the most important ONE, and then explore why it is.

My Answer: Myth is about the Relationship to One’s own self

The early Romantic German philosopher Novalis said “The seat of the soul is there where the inner and outer worlds meet.” [1] Myth is this meeting between inner and outer world.  As heroes meet gods, kings, queens, monsters and challenges, they discover themselves.

Joseph Campbell speaks of the two paths: the left hand path, and the hero’s journey [2]. The left-hand path is finding one’s role in society. The hero’s journey is a journey of self-discovery.

The most important relationship in the myths that we have read is the relationship between the individual and himself.  The relationships to the divine, to family, to communities are important but serve as a canvas for the hero to discover himself.

Temple at Delphi, the Oracle

The first inscription above the temple of Delphi is “Know Thyself” [3].  Each hero is seeking to “Know Themselves”.

As discussed in the course lecture week 8, the central question of Oedipus Rex is “Who am I?”  Is Oedipus who he is because of land (Cithaeron, Thebes, or Corinth) or genes (birth parents, adopted parents). “Oedipus shows us how our identities can dissolve before our very eyes.” [4]

In the Odyssey, a person discovering themself with the help of the divine is Telemachus.  In Book 1 he is a victim until intervention by Athena allows him to discover his hero, leader aspect.  Upon this transition, he commands his mother: “Nay, go to thy chamber, and busy thyself with thine own tasks, the loom and the distaff, and bid thy handmaids ply their tasks; but speech shall be for men, for all, but most of all for me; since mine is the authority in the house.” [7, line 356]

In the Bacchae, the god Dionysis wonders if he is really accepted by the pantheon of gods. He is different, his rites and rituals are different. Gods are not immune from the process of self discovery. Even gods are not blessed with self belief. They too must find their own identity as they face the challenges of life.

Virgil’s hero Aeneas follows a parallel journey to Odysseus, but with a “Pietas” character that the Roman culture valued highly.  Virgil is writing at a time of Roman Empire and Stability as opposed to Homer at at time of Greek Exploration and Expansion. [5,8] Pietas, or sense of duty, requires that Aeneas finds his identity in a context of an obligation to society.  He is not free to just be himself.  He must find the integration of who he really is with what his society needs from him.

The central question of the myths is “Who am I?”.  Relationships with others are important – me to Gods, me to family (Oedipus), me to society (Aeneas in Games), me to father/mother (Telemachus), but they serve as a canvas for the central relationship, “knowing myself”.

  1. Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia: Das Allgemeine Brouillon. David W. Wood, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007.
  2. The Power of Myth. Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers: Anchor, 1991.
  4. Dr. Peter Struck, Course Notes (Announcements Week 8).
  5. Homer. The Odyssey, A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.
  6. Sophocles. The Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. Sir Richard Jebb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1887.
  7. Euripides. The Tragedies of Euripides, translated by T. A. Buckley. Bacchae. London. Henry G. Bohn. 1850.
  8. Virgil, The Aeneid, Robert Fitzgerald, trans. New York: Vintage, 1990
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