Global History of Capitalism MOOC

Course: Global History of Capitalism
Length: 6 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Princeton/edX
Instructor: group

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, there has been an explosion of interest in the history of capitalism. Some narratives focus on enormous waste, environmental destruction, overpowered corporations, exploitation of workers, or outrageous inequality. Others are more positive, telling a story about unparalleled prosperity, longer life expectancies, integration of markets, connectivity among peoples, and poverty alleviation.
In this course, we emphasize the complexity of capitalism over such neat narratives. By looking at capitalism through a global lens, we investigate multiple types of explanations and impacts on local, national, regional and global levels. We also examine a range of different topics deeply connected to the evolution of capitalism; including labor relations, migration, commodities, consumption, finance, war, imperialism, development, energy, and the environment.

I chose to take this course, on impulse, for two reasons: after my wonderful experience in the Oxford mooc on economics, I felt a bit more confident about venturing outside my comfort zone; and, I thought it might help to get a better grounding in the vocabulary I see whizzing by me in my Twitter and news feeds.

The course was structured a little differently from the usual lecture – > quiz. The class was presented as a roundtable discussion by six Princeton grad students obtaining their PhDs in History. I appreciate the effort to try new formats, and I think it was quite successful in that it was well-suited for students of different levels. The graded material was aimed at the lowest common denominator, so for those like me, who really don’t know our commodities from our fiscalizations, there was ample opportunity to at least understand the playing field. But the readings, discussions, and posted discussion questions would allow those with more background to go into far more detail.

I did meet my goal of understanding the vocabulary better, and followed most of the history. I also found it monumentally depressing, since it seems to me we’re doing everything wrong. A few things surprised me: I’m not the only one who thinks growth is not the yardstick by which we should be measuring the economy, for instance. I was particularly depressed to find that, globally, economic inequality has improved (sort of mirroring Steven Pinker’s assertion that the world overall is a better place now than ever before) , mostly due to the rising middle class in Asia, but within individual countries and economies, inequality has increased.

Each week started with a brief overview of the topic by the grad student who would lead that week’s discussion. A set of articles or book chapters was presented for pre-reading, and the grad students discussed the issues raised in a series of three 15-minute videos. After each video, a few graded “knowledge check” questions were posed, and at the end of the video series, several ungraded quizzes of varying formats – short answer, drag-and-drop, identification – helped provide more emphasis on the basics for those of us who needed it. Several discussion questions based on the material were also posed. The discussions tended to be above my level, so I didn’t participate, but peeked in to see some of the responses.

Three exams of 20 questions each, spaced every 2 weeks, made up the bulk of the grading. These weren’t hard, but did require reading the assigned articles as well as understanding the videos. I was a little bothered by the notation on the quizzes: “If you did not get the score you were hoping for, please return to this page after 8 hours and try again.” Coursera does this as well. I’m not sure why it bothers me; I certainly benefit from it, since it allows me to fix mistakes, figure out if I truly didn’t understand something or if I just got one thing confused with another, and mooc grades are pretty irrelevant anyway, but somehow it takes the fun out of it. Maybe I’m just an academic masochist. In any case, I would have passed even without the mulligans, and I’m not taking my final score as any sort of indication of my true understanding of capitalism.

The discussions went something like this:

>>So like — I guess like we’re talking about specific institutions inside the state, right? So we could be talking about the International Monetary Fund or — I mean, like, I guess like what — I always push, I don’t know. Like, I guess the state, for me, can be so many different things and there are so many different parts to it. So I guess I’d just like to say like — I’m not sure I can like answer it but that we have to be maybe a little bit careful about what exactly — which part of the state we’re talking about.
>> So I think Levy sort of answers that by talking about the Federal Housing Administration —
>> Right.
>> And also about the government conceding, sort of, more ground corporate companies and allowing for mortgages on a private level. And, I mean, part of his story, interestingly, is, sort of, the public sector seeking ground to private profit-seeking which is still an action or, sort of, something the state creates but it doesn’t realize that it’s doing it. It’s an unintended consequence.

A graded question would cover when the IMF was set up, rather than the details in the discussion. Someone who really lives for this stuff would have a great time, but me, it’s all I can do to keep the IMF and WTO straight because they’re really very different and were set up in completely different circumstances. And I’ve never understood the FHA, but turns out it wasn’t essential to do so. See what I mean about different levels?

I think it was a successful course, and I quite liked the unusual format; in general, I appreciate it when courses try something a little different. Don’t be afraid to give it a shot even if you’ve a beginner who never heard of Bretton Woods (I kept thinking of it as Birnam Wood, very different thing) or if you have never understood the implications of the gold standard; it’s a way to make a start. And if you’re conversant in these things, I think the different theories discussed could expand your understanding as well.


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