Watchworthy Wednesday: Free Online Class Features Art of Being Human

On what he thought would be a cool class lecture, Kansas State University Professor Michael Wesch set out on a 41-mile run, while at the same time, controlling a video camera in a drone above him and delivering his talk.

Michael Wesch

Michael Wesch

He starts off strong, jogging at a quick pace through Manhattan’s streets and woods, saying: “We’re going to talk about what it is that makes us human. … So many people think that what makes us human is our ability to walk, our ability to talk, ability to use tools with our hands, but today, I want to show you a few things that are a little different.”

At Mile 17, however, the wind picked up, the microphone stopped recording his voice and class had to be cut short. Wesch called it a “fail.” But, this is “Anthropology 101,” an introductory open online course on the science of human beings. And, failure is a big part of being human.

The free summer course, which starts June 5, aims to get students out in the world to see what cultural anthropology is all about, Wesch said. “It’s like the best classroom ever.”

The class features 10 lessons and 10 challenges. And, the textbook, “The Art of Being Human” by Wesch, will be available for free download. An excerpt:

The art of being human is not easy. You will have to overcome your fears, step outside your comfort zone, and get comfortable with the uncomfortable.  “Anthropology requires strength, valor, and courage,” Nancy Scheper-Hughes reminds us, “Pierre Bourdieu called anthropology a combat sport, an extreme sport as well as a tough and rigorous discipline. … It teaches students not to be afraid of getting one’s hands dirty, to get down in the dirt, and to commit yourself, body and mind. Susan Sontag called anthropology a ‘heroic’ profession.”

And, what is the payoff for this heroic journey? If you are like me, you will discover in anthropology new questions and new ideas. You will try, as I did, to make them your own. But, ideas cannot be owned. I did not have the ideas, the ideas had me. They carried me across rivers of doubt and uncertainty where I found the light and life of places forgotten. I climbed mountains of fear. I felt their jagged edges, wiped their dust from my brow, and left my blood in their soil. There is a struggle to be had for sure. You may not find the meaning of life, but you might just have the experience of being alive.

Above all, the art of being human takes practice. As such, this book is not presented as a typical textbook, full of bold-faced terms to be memorized and regurgitated on exams. There will be some of that, as there are always new concepts and terms to learn as you step into a new way of thinking. But, above all, there will be a simple idea at work, that anthropology is not just a science. It is a way of life and, for most people, a new way of thinking that will open them up to being the best human being they can be. So, we proceed in recognition of a simple truth:

You cannot think your way into a new way of living. You have to live your way into a new way of thinking.

“The course will proceed through the 10 lessons, representing the 10 big ideas that you can learn by studying anthropology,” Wesch said. “Laid out together in sequence, they read almost like a manifesto:

  1. People are different. These differences represent the vast range of human potential and possibility. Our assumptions, beliefs, values, ideas, ideals – even our abilities – are largely a product of our culture.
  2. We can respond to such differences with hate or ignorance, or we can choose to open up to them and ask questions we have never considered before.
  3. When we open up to such questions, we put ourselves in touch with our higher nature. It was asking questions, making connections, and trying new things that brought us down from the trees, and took us to the moon.
  4. It is not easy to see our assumptions. Our most basic assumptions are embedded in the basic elements of our everyday lives (our language, our routines and habits, our technologies).
  5. ‘We create our tools and then our tools create us.’
  6. Most of what we take as ‘reality’ is a cultural construction (‘real’-ized through our unseen, unexamined assumptions of what is right, true, or possible.)
  7. We fail to examine our assumptions not just because they are hard to see, but also because they are safe and comfortable. They allow us to live with the flattering illusion that ‘I am the center of the universe, and what matters are my immediate needs and desires.’
  8. Our failure to move beyond such a view has led to the tragedy of our times: that we are more connected than ever, yet feel and act more disconnected.
  9. Memorizing these ideas is easy. Living them takes a lifetime of practice. Fortunately, the heroes of all time have walked before us. They show us the path.
  10. They show us that collectively, we make the world. Understanding how we make the world — how it could be made or understood differently — is the road toward realizing our full human potential. It is the road to true freedom.”

Each lesson concludes with a challenge that allows students “to ‘live their way’ into this new way of thinking,” Wesch explained. Students “will talk to strangers, do fieldwork, get comfortable with the uncomfortable, try new things, break habits, reach out across great distances to discover how you are connected to other people all over the planet, encounter and come to appreciate people radically different from you, and, ultimately, come back home to see yourself as a new kind of person, a hero in your own way, ready to be the best human you can be.”

Wesch, named the 2008 U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation, is an associate professor of anthropology and Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Kansas State University.

His “failed” first lecture now is a promo video for his course:

To register for the online course, enroll at anth101.com/enroll.

Editor’s note: Watchworthy Wednesday posts highlight interesting resources and appear in DML Central every Wednesday. Any tips for future posts are welcome. Please comment below or send email to mcruz@hri.uci.edu.