Online Courses on World History & Sustainable Development

By Evan Pye

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been taking several online courses to learn more about world history and the sustainable development goals. I’ve been learning world history with John Green’s CrashCourse World History 2 on youtube. The course is based on theme rather than chronologically or geographically. Themes featured include war, disease, water, Islam, climate change, and money. I went through the entire first course on world history offered by Crash Course this time last year. I learned so much that I had missed in high school, and this second course taught me just as much.  

The most interesting lesson I learned from the second half of the “World History 2” course, and the lesson that may be most relevant to international development, is that democracies may not be the most effective (economically) form of government for developing countries. John Green points to Singapore and China as examples for his argument. The architect of Singapore’s new government was Lee Kuan Yew, who leads a very dominant political power that has the freedom to focus on long-term development objectives without any interruption. As a result, Singapore has very strong health, education, and social security systems. The country has emerged as an economic success story over recent decades. Of course, China is another example of tremendous economic growth under a non-democratic political system. Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Communist Party implemented 5-year plans that allowed the Chinese government to appoint executives in China’s biggest corporations. This state-run industrial model is successful in some sectors, and not so successful in others. For instance, China is very good at building infrastructure, but not very good in entertainment or innovative industries such as filmmaking or software/tech. John Green explains that the state-run model might be helpful to developing countries that need to foster industry and infrastructure, but should maybe be replaced when a country is ready to transition to a service-based economy.

After finishing the World History II course, I signed up for a free online mini-course on the Sustainable Development Goals from Jeffrey Sachs and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The course gave an overview of the Global Goals and explained their origins. It begins with a 1972 UN conference in Stockholm, which was the first time development and the environment were discussed together. 20 years later, in 1992, the Earth Summit in Rio set goals to protect biodiversity and mitigate climate change. And then in 2012, the Rio+20 conference set the stage for the SDGs to replace the highly-successful MDGs in 2015. Sachs goes onto explain how the goals are highly inter-connected, how every country is responsible for creating its own tailored plan for achieving the goals by 2030, and how businesses and universities should serve as allies in this endeavor. While discussing the role of universities in the United States, Sachs refers to the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act, which allocated land in each state upon which to build public universities. This investment was meant to reap benefits by stimulating local economies and producing research and development to spur American progress.

I am particularly interested in the roles that universities have to contribute to global health and development. I think that for all the research that is conducted, there should also be an action component. Universities are filled with thousands of energetic, passionate, and curious students from the full range of academic departments – equipped with knowledge, expertise from their professors, and resources from their universities – capable of making a real difference. I think most of this potential is so far untapped, but could have a very significant impact on the developing world when it is.


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