It’s embarrassing to read Gregory Nagy in the recent New Yorker article by Nathan Heller. The article is one of the best bits on MOOCs that I’ve come across. What’s new here is not the news about attempts to strip down the university system as much as what it says about the motives of the elite University professors such as Nagy or Michael Sandel brought into this educational scheme. Kudos to our colleagues at Harvard and elsewhere who will have nothing to do with it.
Nagy is a distinguished and charming a classicist famous at Harvard for the popular course “Concepts of the Hero,” soon to be relaunced as “CB22x: The Ancient Greek Hero.” It would seem that the MOOC appears to the professor’s inner Achilles. Is this at bottom the appeal of Massive Open Online Courses, to the professoriate at elite Ivy League institutions, this quest for immortal glory in the form of an online lecture, inscribed into the ethernet for all time?
In the Web lecture, Nagy talks about the scene from the Iliad in which Achilles is told of his forked destiny: “You have two choices, Achilles. Either you stay at Troy and fight, and then die young, and then get a glory that is imperishable. Or you go home. And then you don’t die young. You live to a ripe old age, presumably, and you could even be happy. But you’re not going to get the glory. And this glory—I use the word ‘glory’ to translate kleos—is not just glory. It’s the glory that comes from being featured in the medium of Homeric poetry.