The Simpsons at UC Berkeley

Homer Simpson math chalkboard

This was a very pleasant trip down memory lane, here’s an article from the Cal Alumni website: A Formula for Funny: The Surprisingly Smart Humor of The Simpsons by Dano Nissan.

There are some neat connections with the history of The Simpsons and UC Berkeley, including David X. Cohen’s background in math. I shared some some of my own thoughts with The Simpsons and Philosophy at Berkeley, and here are my Simpsons quote-heavy reflections below —

Teaching Homer at Berkeley

In the 2000s, UC Berkeley offered a DeCal course called “The Simpsons and Philosophy.” (DeCal stands for Democratic Education at Cal. All classes are student-led.)

As it happens, Tyler Shores ’06, the founder of the course, says he taught a lesson on the very subject of Kierkegaard and existentialism (see mainbar). To help illustrate the philosopher’s ideas, he screened clips from the eighth-season episode “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer,” in which Homer eats a chili pepper so hot it sends him on a hallucinogenic spiritual journey led by an imaginary coyote voiced by Johnny Cash. Near the end of the episode, Homer says, “I’m a lonely, insignificant speck on a has-been planet orbited by a cold, indifferent sun.”

Shores, now program manager at University of Cambridge’s ThinkLab, says, “That’s a good entrée to the existentialism question.”

Each class would pair a topic in philosophy with an episode. “We would do Marxism. We would talk about the revolt of the proletariat and the difference between base and superstructure,” says Shores. “And now, let’s watch this Simpsons episode where you see some of these things apply.” Then they’d watch the episode in which the nuclear power plant workers go on strike.

After discussing Plato’s Republic, Shores would show the episode in which Mensa, the high-IQ society (of which, naturally, Lisa is a member), takes control of Springfield, à la Plato’s philosopher-kings.

For theology, the class would watch the episode in which Homer invents his own religion of laziness, worshipping at the altar of his couch, in order to skip church. “What if we picked the wrong religion?” muses Homer. “Every week, we’re just making God madder and madder.”

The course was a hit, filling lecture halls in Dwinelle Hall and the Valley Life Sciences Building semester after semester. Each 90-minute class consisted of a lecture, which included an episode screening, followed by discussion sections. There was even a textbook: The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh of Homer.

While the course is no longer offered, the website lives on. As the text there explains, “The course was created not necessarily with the premise of finding a philosophy of The Simpsons, but rather to elucidate philosophy through The Simpsons.

And here’s a picture I took during my last visit to Berkeley, and the classroom we held that first-ever Simpsons class in:

And you can read the full article at the Cal Alumni website: A Formula for Funny: The Surprisingly Smart Humor of The Simpsons by Dano Nissan.

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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