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Since the 2016 election, there’s been growing engagement and participation in US politics, especially among young Americans. Whether you’re interested in social justice reform, climate activism, or even just laying out arguments more efficiently, it helps to have a solid grasp of political science, history, and theory.
Of course, US politics is an incredibly broad topic, and it can be tough to know where to start. The online courses below provide in-depth lessons on a specific subject, from how the US government functions to the history of capitalism. Provided by schools like Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Georgetown, and the University of Michigan, these classes are taught by some of the most influential historians, authors, and academics in the country.
Most of the courses below are either completely free or free to audit (meaning you won’t receive a grade or certification of completion). If you do want a certificate to add to your resume or LinkedIn, prices vary from $25-$196, depending on the class and learning platform.
If your memory of learning about the three branches of government in middle school is foggy at best, this four-part HarvardX series will do more than just catch you up to speed. In this self-paced program, you’ll start with the foundations of the US Constitution before tackling the inner workings of the Federal government and public policy. While this set of classes costs $196, you’ll receive about four months’-worth of educational content and a certificate at the end (this can be a great option if you’re looking to study or work in politics in the future).
Like the title suggests, this class covers Black history from when slavery was abolished, spanning all the way through the Bill Clinton era of politics. It includes 25 completely free video lectures, most of them two-part classes on specific topics including Migration and Urbanization and the Black Power movement. There’s also a long syllabus with texts from Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Anita Hill, among many others.
Pulitzer-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spent over 50 years studying US presidents and shares everything she learned about the greatest ones. From Lincoln to FDR, she examines the core qualities of influential leadership, focusing this course on the emotional aspects of being a memorable president. As a bonus, this class doubles as personal development training, as many of the points can apply to your own career, ending with notes on how to apply what you learned to your own activism.
If you missed your chance to take Women’s Studies in high school or college, this Columbia University course provides a thorough look at women’s fight for equal rights in America. Starting from the Cold War era, the class explores the growth of the 1960s feminist movement all the way through the 2016 election, #MeToo movement, and 2018 midterms. Beyond covering history, the class also asks you to consider some tough conundrums, such as the times when equality for some women may result in inequality for others, or how to best move forward without leaving other women behind.
Capitalism continues to be a major subject of contention, but it’s far from as simple as it seems on the surface. Offered through Cornell, this four-week course explores American capitalism’s 500+ year history, tracking its many changes even as its core tenets (such as wage labor and private property) remained the same. The class will also touch upon global capitalism as well, while also acknowledging the US’s unique role in it.
As many international political systems have started to shift into authoritarianism, understanding how and why it happens is crucial to safeguarding democracy. Featuring guest contributors from Columbia, the University of Michigan, and Rutgers, this course brings expert perspectives to explore the processes that undermine and eventually erode democratic structures, leaving learners with a better knowledge of contemporary politics.
The ability to identify and unpack flimsy arguments is almost as important as understanding key political issues themselves. In the fourth installment of a larger series on logic and critical thinking, this course goes through all the types of logical fallacies you might hear in speeches and debates, while also equipping you with the tools you’ll need to argue against lies and exaggerations when you spot them.
The core of most political debates — whether they’re over economic inequality, healthcare reform, or the concept of free speech — is morality. To explore the moral foundations of politics, this Yale course dives into major political theories of the Enlightenment, such as utilitarianism and Marxism, examining them in both a historical and modern context. You’ll leave the course with a firmer foundation for your own political arguments, with knowledge on how to apply these ideas to political discussions today.
If you’re concerned about climate change but feel powerless to do anything, this course outlines the manageable, individual actions you can take to make a difference, whether you’re focusing on food, energy, or transportation. It also teaches you how to engage your local community in environmental causes, so you’re left with tangible steps to making a significant difference.
Keeping up with the news brings one major downside: It can start to get really overwhelming, especially if you feel like your voice will never be heard. Luckily, this course is designed to combat those familiar feelings of apathy and hopelessness, by providing you with the tools you need to stay effectively engaged with your local and federal government. Led by Georgetown faculty, this self-paced course covers the functions of the three branches of government, the steps to joining an interest group, and the role news and media organizations play in politics.
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