History of Now: Plagues and Pandemics


Free on YouTube: Watch "The History of Now: Plagues and Pandemics"


In the spring of 2020, as people all over the world confronted the daily reality of living through the Covid-19 pandemic, many wondered how previous generations of humans navigated similar crises. At MIT, an interdisciplinary team of humanistic faculty decided to explore this question in a course that broke ground as a live, free MIT class, held in an open public webinar format so that anyone who wanted to attend could do so, from anywhere in the world.

As the course began, hundreds of people from around the world responded to the opportunity and joined students in 21H.000, the "History of Now: Plagues and Pandemics edition." In hour-long, weekly sessions, they heard experts explain the origins and ramifications of a wide range of devastating pandemics — from the Black Death, which killed as many as 200 million people during the Middle Ages, to the 1918 flu epidemic, which had a death toll of roughly 50 million people, as well as many lesser-known plagues.

“This was a live MIT class happening in real time that was open to an external audience,” says Malick Ghachem, an associate professor of history who created and taught the First-Year Discovery subject in concert with two of his History section colleagues — associate professor Sana Aiyar and professor Elizabeth Wood — as well as two faculty from the Program in Science, Technology, and Society — professor Kate Brown and associate professor Dwai Banerjee.

MIT's "History of Now," a recent course concept that had run once before, enables students to take a deep dive into topics in the current headlines, exploring them with the additional context of historical perspectives. In the first iteration of the course, MIT history professors rotated in to give students a presentation connecting present day issues to their area of research and expertise. Ghachem, for example, engaged the students in a comparison of impeachment in the 18th century and today.

You can now watch all course sessions on YouTube at your convenience.


Suggested links

History of Now: Pandemic Edition | All Class Webinars on YouTube

MIT History

MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society

History of Now course

Sana Aiyar

Dwai Banerjee

Kate Brown

Malick Ghachem

Elizabeth Wood