"Did you know there’s no definition of planets?,” my 12-year- old son announced over dinner. I had to admit I did not. I’d always thought that there was some size cut off, and we’d discovered Pluto fell below it, which is why it had been de-planeted and relegated back to being just a distant, sad, space rock, sans dignity or astrological significance. But, my son informed me, this was not the case. A small rock like Pluto can be a planet, and a gigantic bigger-than-Mercury rock like Ganymede can just be a moon, no matter how hard it tries.
It’s like the continents, my son told me. There isn’t a definition of continent; you just know one when you see it. Why is Australia a continent but not Greenland? Because everyone’s agreed one is and one isn’t. And why not?
I didn’t have an answer for why not. Parents get cranky when they don’t have answers. Though, admittedly, I was happy to hear about Pluto, which I’d always felt kind of sorry for. Spunky little Pluto. “Where are you learning all this?” I asked my son, who was looking quite pleased with himself. “Is this from school?”
A lot of conversations about kids and the Internet are about danger; predators, porn, sexting, bullying, the perils of citing Wikipedia in a crowded school report. And as a parent, I may occasionally worry about some subset of those things when I see my son giggling ominously on his tablet.
For all the whining about kids these days and the decline of education, the truth is that it’s a pretty amazing time to be a kid who is interested in learning stuff.
The fact is, though, the main thing he uses the Internet for, as far as I can tell, is to learn things. For a bit he was watching a lot of John Oliver, and would chatter about financing of special districts, which was pretty cool, even if John Oliver says “fuck” a few hundred times more than you’d want him to as a parent when he’s teaching your son about local government or Donald Trump.
Now, though, my son’s moved on to the profanity-free wonder that is Crash Course.
Crash Course is an educational video series designed for use mostly for middle-school and high-school students. If, like me, you’ve done significant work in educational curriculum, then you know that the words “designed for middle-school and high-school students” are the kiss of boredom, despair, and condescending dumbed-down anodyne tedium. Don’t mention evolution! Don’t mention God! Don’t mention racism or any conflict at all ever! This is for students; whatever you do,don’t make them think!
In fact though, Crash Course is great. It’s funded in large part through a very successful Patreon campaign, which means that while it’s certainly meant to be school-use friendly, it’s not stuck with the dreary offend-no- one calculus that can engulf textbooks in a morass of bland. As a result, organizer and acclaimed Young Adult author John Green is free to indulge his sense of humor, and to focus on important but contentious topics.
The American history video on westward expansion, for example, opens with Green cheerfully making an Oregon Trail video game in-joke (Spoiler alert: You have died of dysentery!) and then going on to spend the bulk of the episode explaining that a) the Wild West wasn’t very wild, and b) expanding into the West mostly meant expanding genocide against native peoples. I was in high school a long time ago, and no doubt other schools do a better job today, but I can assure you, when I was sitting at my desk, Native American history was pretty much never at the center of any lesson, ever.
Of course, we did have books back when I was a kid, and even television. I remember crying bitterly in middle school when I missed the airing of the reptile episode of David Attenborough’s Life On Earth. (What can I tell you? I was a sensitive kid who liked reptiles.) Crash Course doesn’t have anything like the gorgeous nature photography of the Attenborough series—but it does have a staggering amount of information packaged in convenient 10 minute videos. So far the YouTube channel has 16 series, from Biology (40 videos) to Literature (24 videos) to Games (8 videos—none of which my son’s watched, because he says videos about games sound boring.)
Some topics work better than others, depending on the host and the content. Videos on Emily Dickinson poems or electron orbitals are overly rushed; they’d both benefit from a more expansive format, and from having a real live teacher available to answer questions. On the other hand, Hank Green (John’s brother) does an amazing job explaining Pascal’s Wager using the Indiana Jones movies, of all things.
John’s “Asian Responses to Imperialism” deftly summarizes the arguments of intellectuals like Rabindranath Tagore and Sayyid Jamal Ad-Din Al-Afghani, while making the important point that much of the internal Western criticism of imperialism originated in the anti-imperial critiques of those who were being colonized. Also, Craig Benzine’s Government and Politics series is a joy, even if he doesn’t make the obvious camel joke about the bicameral legislature. (I made it for him, though. My son sighed.)
For all the whining about kids these days and the decline of education, the truth is that it’s a pretty amazing time to be a kid who is interested in learning stuff. My son loves that he knows more about the history of the Panama Canal than his school teacher does (Hint: The U.S. didn’t get the canal through peaceful negotiation.) He loves finding things out—and next to language itself, as Crash Course demonstrates, the Internet is about the best tool ever invented for doing that.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948 and the editor of the comics and culture blog The Hooded Utilitarian. He writes for the Guardian, Quartz, the New Republic, and numerous other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @nberlat.