So I’ve been making a tour of all of the online education portals. I’ve long been embarrassed by how weak my math skills are and I’ve been doing remedial work on them on Khan Academy, a site which is probably still best known for its math exercises. Recently however, I discovered that the site has expanded to include all kinds of different topics, including a vast library of videos covering the history of the world as a whole. There must be something like over a hundred hours of videos there on history. It took a ridiculous amount of time to do so but I can now happily say that I’ve been through every bit of the content that’s available so far.
I decided to continue with my economics education with this course on the Economic History of the Soviet Union, motivated in part by the fact that I’m very pro-capitalism without actually having much knowledge of its greatest ideological rival, Marxism. Plus of course one of our closest friends is a big fan of Marxist philosophy and it might be useful to have some intellectual ammunition. Although it’s hosted on Marginal Revolution University, this course is taught by neither Tyler Cowen nor Alex Tabarrok but instead Guinevere Liberty Nell. As far as I can tell, she has never been a professor at any university but is a scholar who has written several books on this topic.
Immediately after the Principles of Economics course from MRUniversity, I decided to do this one, figuring that it would provide a solid grounding for my understanding of classical economics. Unfortunately it harder to get into than I thought because it’s basically a summary of the famous classical economists including both what they were right about and what they were ultimately wrong about so a framework tying the whole thing together into a coherent whole it really is something of mostly historical interest. I’m also amused that something like half of it is all about Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations.
This course covers a very wide range of topics beginning with how philosophers at least as far back as Galileo questioned why diamonds are considered more valuable than water when the former is mostly useless while the latter is essential for all life. It goes on to consider some fascinating questions, such as why economics seem to have developed so slowly compared to some other fields of knowledge, speculating that this might be because it touches on the lives of everyone yet its conclusions are so unintuitive. There is plenty of stuff about writers who aren’t usually thought of as economists such as David Hume but most of it are about the classical economists, arranged in chronological order and classified according to whether they were before Adam Smith or after him.
As noted the coverage of Smith is especially extensive with videos on his life and career and a summary of every chapter of The Wealth of Nations as Smith discusses everything from why markets work to how religious institutions should be funded. It’s all interesting and very instructive but I can’t say that it’s terribly exciting especially if you’ve already learned it all formally in another economics course. I must confess that I was most intrigued by the salacious parts, such as how Smith didn’t appear to practice what he preached when he worked at a customs house. The same contradictions are evident in John Stuart Mill’s career with the East India Company as his emphasized liberty extensively in his own writings yet never extended that to the Indian subcontinent.
The parts that I liked best are those that cleared up misunderstandings for me or introduced me to genuinely new material. I admit that being a longstanding subscriber to The Economist, I had always been confused by the publication’s beginnings due to the English Corn Laws. Now I realize that during that time, corn referred to all grains in general and not corn as we understand the term today. It was also shocking to me how slowly the Industrial Revolution led to a rise in living standards for most people, which helped me understand why Marxism was so seductive. Plus of course, as the course itself notes, debates about machinery and whether or not it would lead to poorer outcomes for labor started at around this time and are still very much relevant today as we discuss whether or not the rise of robots would lead to permanent increases in unemployment.
All told this is a decently interesting course but I found that I don’t really care all that much about the details of the lives of the great economists nor the historical processes that led to economics being the way that it is nowadays. I think I like it better when the course is about the economics topics of interest directly. However I am amused that in this course about the great economists, there is no coverage at all of Karl Marx though there are some mentions of Friedrich Engels. MRUniversity does cover all that in a separate course about the economic history of Russia but I interpret this to mean that Marx simply doesn’t amount to much in the history of classical economics as it is being currently taught.
So for this latest course I took I jumped ship yet again onto another platform, that of the rather pretentiously named MRUniversity. I’ve been following the Marginal Revolution blog for ages now, which I understand is that most popular economics blog on the net, so I’ve known that they’ve set up an online university of their own a while back. But this is the first time I went poking into what’s available from them and I was pleasantly surprised by how much of it there is. It looks like I’ll have plenty to occupy myself with for a while, starting right here with the Principles of Economics.
I’ve long wanted to take a course about electricity since it’s one of the most mysterious parts of physics to me despite it being essential to everyday life. There doesn’t seem to be anything available on it on Coursera. I’ve been aware of the competing edX platform for a while now but hadn’t taken the time to explore it. So when I saw that it does indeed have a course on this topic, I immediately made an account.
This one is taught by Jason Hafner of Rice University and consists of five weeks worth of material. Being part one of a two part course, the coverage only stretches from the concept of charge to circuits, so don’t expect to be fiddling with complex electronics here. I consider the course to be quite difficult, especially because of the mathematics involved. There is plenty of calculus in the later weeks. Due to this, I could only follow along so far and eventually just settled on watching the lecture videos as I had no hope of completing the weekly exercises, let alone the final exam.