The Corner

Intellectual Crack

As a long-time addict of the Great Courses CD and DVD lectures (it was formerly called The Teaching Comany; and my addiction has been so long-time that several of my courses are on cassette tape), I very much enjoyed Heather Mac Donald’s article on the firm in City Journal.

Heather contrasts the market-oriented and -tested offerings from Great Courses with the po-mo moonbattery of our college curriculums:

So totalitarian is the contemporary university that professors have written to [Great Courses founder Tom] Rollins complaining that his courses are too canonical in content and do not include enough of the requisite “silenced” voices. It is not enough, apparently, that identity politics dominate college humanities departments; they must also rule outside the academy. Of course, outside the academy, theory encounters a little something called the marketplace, where it turns out that courses like “Queering the Alamo,” say, can’t compete with “Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition.”

What accounts for the difference, though? Aren’t colleges operating in a competitive market too?

The biggest question raised by the Great Courses’ success is: Does the curriculum on campuses look so different because undergraduates, unlike adults, actually demand postcolonial studies rather than the Lincoln-Douglas debates? Every indication suggests that the answer is no. “If you say to kids, ‘We’re doing the regendering of medieval Europe,’ they’ll say, ‘No, let’s do medieval kings and queens,’” asserts [history lecturer Patrick] Allitt. “Most kids want classes on the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, World War I, and the American Civil War.”

Probably most of the difference is just the age groups being served. College is primarily a credentialing rite, a prolonged and fantastically expensive mental bris. The content is secondary. Great Courses sells to an older crowd who actually want to learn stuff.

A professor who teaches the Civil War as the “greatest slave uprising in history” to his undergraduates because that is what is expected of him, says University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Kors, will know perfectly well how to teach a more intellectually honest course for paying adults.

There’s also that regrettable business of us getting wiser as we get older:

A few professors suggest that the company has pegged the audience as leaning conservative.

(“Conservative” of course being a synonym for “wise.”)

Heather acknowledges some soft squishy spots in Great Courses offerings:

Do the Great Courses’ professors live up to their billing? Not always. A few ramble in their presentations or oversimplify (even sugarcoat) their material—making Nietzsche, for example, sound almost like a self-help guru.

Yeah, I did that Nietzsche course. They should have billed him as “Ralph Waldo Nietzsche.” (Though I did the course on Transcendentalists, too, which wasn’t bad. Well, actually it was boring as hell; but that’s because — as I had previously suspected, and the Great Courses lectures amply confirmed — Emerson & Co. are intrinsically boring. So you could say the course is … faithful to its material.)

All in all, though, Heather thinks, as I do, that Great Courses is a Good Thing. Tom Rollins has got stinking rich from it, and jolly good luck to him. There aren’t many kinds of entrepreneurship as honorable and socially useful as selling Western Civ. to those of us who think we don’t have enough of it.

While the Great Courses, then, is only an ambiguous marker of the academic scene, the meaning of the audience’s response is far clearer: there is a fervent demand in the real world for knowledge about history and the high points of human creation.

I concur with Heather, though, that the low-budget backgrounds and cheesy visuals on the DVD courses need serious work. Neither Ben Schumacher on Quantum Mechanics nor Sam Wang on Neuroscience squeezes out much value-added from a visual format. The small number of pictures (and in Ben’s case, experimental setups) they offer could have been put in the accompanying printed material. The main thing I learned from their being on DVD was in fact how very, very hard it apparently is for an academic to know which camera he should be looking at.


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