This is a course that I would love to take. Can someone please recommend this to MDI ;)
Berkeley course uses 'The Simpsons' to discuss philosophyThey shrug off their knapsacks, tuck skateboards under chairs and put cell phones on vibrate as they enter UC Berkeley's Kroeber Hall at the dimming of the day. Pens and paper poised, students prepare to think deep thoughts and study the great minds of civilization for 90 intellectually taxing minutes.
Aristotle and Socrates.
Kant and Descartes.
Nietzsche and Sartre.
Homer and . . . Marge, Bart, Lisa and baby Maggie.
"The Simpsons," believe it or not, now grace the syllabus of at least one course at Cal, one of the country's most prestigious public universities, home to Nobel Prize winners, renowned scientists and more famous authors than there are hemp clothing sellers on Telegraph Avenue.
This two-unit course, called "Simpsons and Philosophy," is part of the university's De-Cal program, student-sponsored initiatives in cooperation with UC Berkeley faculty meant to "broaden the education, and the university experience, of all Cal students."
A word of advice to all of those doubting academic highbrows out there. To quote that animated miscreant Bart Simpson, "Don't have a cow, man!" This actually is an academically rigorous class, not a dumbing down of either philosophy or "The Simpsons."
What "The Simpsons," which recently aired its 300th episode on Fox, represents is nothing less than a glimpse at the complex human condition, how we live now and make our way morally in an often confusing world. At least that's the line you get from Tyler Shores, the English major and student instructor who developed the course after 14 years of avid "Simpsons" watching.
To Shores, the high jinks of this animated dysfunctional family and its friends and neighbors in fictional Springfield can serve as a lesson in relationships for us all. Even if you don't hang out in coffeehouses, arguing the finer points of Hume and Barthes, Shores believes that students and -- heck, even the common folk -- can glean life lessons from a simple cartoon.
"We're trying to make it serious," Shores said. "Students are able to develop their own De-Cal courses for real class credit, and I figured Berkeley students are smart and want something to pique their interest. But they also want something fun because they work so damn hard. So I put the two together. It's a fun but challenging class."
The germ of Shores' brainstorm came in 2001, after he thumbed through a thick paperback at the bookstore called "The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh of Homer," edited by William Irwin (Open Court, $17.95). It serves as the text for the class, and it answers all the burning questions, such as "Can Nietzsche's rejection of traditional morality justify Bart's bad behavior?" (Short answer: no.)
Shores, who by his own count has watched "Simpsons" episodes 3,000 times, figured that this class might be popular, and his faculty sponsor, Chris Nealon, agreed. But he had no idea just how popular. When Shores stepped into class on the first night, 400 students crammed the lecture hall to vie for 100 spots.
Lest anyone think this is a course that academically challenged jocks seek for easy credits to stay eligible for football, Shores quizzed the students on (a) their knowledge of philosophic principles; and (b) "The Simpsons." The majority of those accepted were upperclassmen with majors ranging from philosophy to economics to English literature.
"Honestly, I definitely needed the two units -- and it counts toward my major," said Bryan Derballa, a third-year English major. "It's interesting the connections they're making between the Socratic method and, like, Ned Flanders.
I don't think it's going to spoil the show for me. As an English major, I like to tear apart works I like and see what's beneath them."
"The Simpsons," added classmate Jill Sederholm, has a message for us all. "It's not just some dumb cartoon," she said.
At the start of a recent class, the lights dimmed, and you could hear the students fidget to get comfortable in wooden chairs bolted to the floor. The screen flickered and there, in its brilliant bouffant blueness, was Marge Simpson's vertically hegemonic hairdo.
This was Episode 175, titled "In Marge We Trust." Marge, upset that her family grumbled about having to go to church (Snoozing Homer: "I got a lot of work to do around the bed today"), volunteers to become the "Listen Lady" at church. Soon she has displaced the Rev. Lovejoy and is dispensing sage advice, saving marriages and solving family squabbles.
Then Marge gets a call from Ned Flanders, the Simpsons' hyper-devout neighbor.
Ned: "I'm in some hot soup here, Marge. Some teenagers are hanging out in front of the store. I think they could start slacking at any moment."
Marge: "Ned, you don't have to stand for that. You just march right up to those youngsters and tell them to vamoose."
Ned: "Well, if you're sure it'll help. . . ."
It does not help. In fact, the slacker teens chase Flanders out of town. They strand him in the zoo with rabid baboons. Lovejoy, eventually, rescues him. When the lights come back up, Shores has struck a contemplative pose in front of the lectern. He sips from his Jamba Juice smoothie, then begins.
"So, what is moral goodness?" Shores said. "That's a pretty big question. Is it doing what's right? But right to whom? What's right? You think, what's the greatest good for the greatest number of people? What are the guiding principles that determine how we act? Let's take a moment and ponder this."
He bowed his head, slightly. Dead air filled the room.
"OK," Shores resumed, "duty as (Immanuel) Kant described it is a question of what you want to do versus what you ought to do to make yourself a good person. They can conflict. What you should do usually means subordinating personal desires. Good intentions is another thing Kant talks about. Must a good deed be intended for good to be perceived as such, and can something intended as evil have good results and be judged morally good?
"I'm thinking of the episode where Homer is at an auction place, right? He places a bid under Flanders' name for 20 bucks, and the bid actually turns out to be for a hundred-dollar bill. Homer intended to screw Flanders over, but it had good results."
Some students in front anxiously scribbled down the anecdote.
"With the 'Listen Lady' episode," Shores continued, "we see what happens when Marge's good intentions turn bad. Kant talks about a duty directed toward oneself and acting to help others. Marge acts out of this duality. How should something be judged if the intentions were good and the results bad?"
Hands popped up throughout the lecture hall. A student in the front row, wearing a black Clash T-shirt, was called on.
"I think it still can be considered a good deed," he said. "Marge didn't think the consequences would be bad, though she might have known these were not good kids. But she couldn't have possibly known Flanders would be chased out of town."
Another hand goes up.
"Remember that episode," a young man added, "where Lisa cheats on the standardized test and gets an A+++ and it makes tons of money for the school so they could buy new equipment? Was that morally bad or good?"
He was interrupted by a woman from the back.
"You know, a democracy is theoretically the greatest good for the greatest number of people," she said. "But there's always going to be an underrepresented group hurt by any decision."
Shores: "Yes, that brings in the Aristotelean question. . . ."
On it goes; 7 p.m. rolls around, and it's time for the students to grab their knapsacks and skateboards and go home to study or watch TV -- or, in the case of students in English 198, "Philosophy and the Simpson," both.
"I asked one of Cal's philosophy professors what he thought of our course," Shores said, "and he said, 'I don't know anything about "The Simpsons" and I don't own a TV.' I'm, like, thinking, fine if you think you're too good for 'The Simpsons.' But don't spoil it for us."
"Men, though they look, fail to see what is well-being, what is the good in life."
"I can't live a button-down life like you. I want it all! The terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles!"
-- Homer Simpson .
"There are no facts, only interpretations."
-- Friedrich Nietzsche
"I didn't do it. No one saw me do it. There's no way you can prove anything! "
-- Bart Simpson
"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means."
-- Immanuel Kant
"If you raise three children who can knock out and hog-tie a perfect stranger, you must be doing something right."
-- Marge Simpson