Urban Utopias – How To Build A Better City


Meets once a week for 4 weeks
4 – 9 learners, ages 13-18

What, exactly, is a city? What is its role? Who defines the city? Why are cities so often linked to visions of modernity and mobility, or prejudice and poverty? Since the rise of the modern city, the urban landscape has been a space of contradiction: simultaneously full of hope and possibility, as well as loneliness and despair. Meanwhile, cities are constantly changing and evolving, in ways both expected and surprising. So, how do we go about building a better, more optimal city? Join us for some summer fun as we imagine a future of possibilities with evidence-based utopian real-talk.



Five hundred years ago, the lawyer and philosopher Thomas More wrote a book with an unhelpfully unwieldy title: Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia. We can just call it Utopia – an original name, coined by More, for an original and hugely influential idea.

Derived from the Greek, that title means “no place”, but it hints at an alternative meaning: when the book was first published in 1516, it included a short poem claiming that the better world More described really was “Eutopia”, a “happy place”. It’s a paradox and a pun, playing on the English inability to distinguish between the pronunciation of the two terms, and it suggests that something’s not quite right. (The word “dystopia” is a much later invention.)

Whatever you call it, is this paradise, whichever name you give it, unobtainable? That’s assuming the place really is meant to be a paradise in the first place.

In More’s book, Utopia is described by a traveler called Raphael Hythloday who bends the narrator’s ear with a survey of our own corrupt, far-from-happy side of the world before enthusiastically describing how much better things are in the island republic of Utopia on the far side of the world. There is no such thing as private property there, and no sectarian strife – but there is a welfare state (incorporating state-sanctioned euthanasia), as well as full employment, a program of rehabilitative slavery for Utopian criminals, a democratic political system that works, a six-hour working day (many enjoy their work so much that they work longer, though), divorce courts, and a general disdain for gold and silver (which are used to make chamber-pots). Reason governs all.

Hythloday’s description of Utopia has meant different things to different readers. In the 19th century, it could be drawn on as a prototype for Communism. A historian interested in the Tudor period could draw satirical lines between Utopia and the disorderly London that More knew all too well in his capacity as one of the city’s undersheriffs (he once had to face down a rioting mob). A good Roman Catholic familiar with him primarily as Saint Thomas More (he was canonized in 1935) could point out how divorce, married priests, and euthanasia might not fit that easily with their beliefs.

All of these approaches ought to make us question what we think is going on in the book, just as More’s contemporaries and fellow humanists were invited to do. It started a centuries-spanning conversation which, in this class, takes the form of a space for thought devoted entirely to Utopias, the power of dreams and the imagination and the benefits of looking at the world in different ways.

On the other hand, there is also a fine tradition of Utopias going terribly wrong when people tried to put their ideals into practice. Utopias are idealized visions of a perfect society. Utopianisms are those ideas put into practice. This is where the trouble begins. It is true that some “intentional communities”, as those who study them like to call them, have flourished, but in this class, we will examine a few, imagined and historical, that show how acting on a dream, un-universalized, can sometimes land you in a nightmare.

This class will look for a Eutopian answer in another neologism – protopia – incremental progress in steps toward improvement, not perfection. As the futurist Kevin Kelly describes his coinage:

“Protopia is a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualise. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.”

This class is about helping learners universalize their dreams to better predict those complex interactions.

Polyhistoria classes emphasize critical thinking, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. We believe that students learn history best by doing what professional historians do.

(Read more about our approach to history.)

Our approach to academics helps learners view traditional disciplines in unconventional ways. With immersive classes that cross disciplines, learners stretch themselves both within and beyond conventional academic pathways, while small classes encourage close collaboration between learners and instructors. Today, Polyhistoria is the only comprehensive online learning platform teaching in-depth, cutting-edge social science scholarship to teenagers.

(Read more about our teaching philosophy.)

Learning is not a spectator sport. Interaction and intellectual exchanges involving all students and the instructor enrich learning for all. Studying history involves an accumulation of knowledge about the past. But it also requires that we communicate that knowledge to others. You must be ready to share your views in class. A worthwhile course depends upon active participation by all students in class discussions.

The goal here is to advance an intelligent conversation from which we all learn. The most obvious way to do that is to say smart things and say them clearly. But that is not the only meaningful way to participate. Asking a question, connecting something already on the table to another thing, clarifying something that someone else has said, and offering evidence from the text under discussion are also all valuable. Bonus points are awarded for contributions that draw on what others have said. Other things to keep in mind: aim for clarity, keep in mind the value of an amicable classroom environment, and try not to monopolize the conversation.

1) Students’ cameras and microphones must be turned on during the class.
2) This class requires the continuous use of logical thinking & hypothetical reasoning skills to critically and creatively analyze the topics covered in the class. These cognitive functions are generally not sufficiently developed until a student is 13+ years old. Students must have the ability to think critically and logically to analyze the topics covered in the class.

Assignments will be posted on the classroom wall each week for students and may include reading, researching, and watching videos. It will also include participation in the threaded discussions on the classroom wall.

1 hour per week in class, and an estimated 0 – 1 hour per week outside of class.

Meets once a week for 4 weeks
4 – 9 learners, ages 13-18