As the cost of a college education soars to unimaginable heights, we sometimes worry that for all this money young people aren’t being exposed to “the best that has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold thought learning should be. Is there a solution?
The always-iconoclastic Heather Mac Donald suggests that there might be. In an article in the City Journal headlined “Great Courses, Great Profits,” Mac Donald writes about a teaching company that (I am quoting from the sub-head) “gives the public what the academy no longer supplies: a curriculum in the monuments of human thought.” If you are like me, you find it depressing to flip through an ideology-laden college curriculum. Here is what Mac Donald found at Great Courses:
To open a Great Courses catalog is to experience an intellectual seduction. “When was the last time you read the classics of American literature?” teases one course description. “Possibly not as recently as you’d like. These carefully crafted lectures are your royal road to recapturing the American experience-and our intellectual and cultural heritage.” A course on Plato’s Dialogues-“for millennia the objects of devoted study by the noblest minds”-invites you to “become engrossed in the ‘romance of the intellect.’ ” The company uses words to describe learning-such as “joy,” “beauty,” “pleasure,” “classic,” and its favorite, “greatness”-that have long disappeared from the academy’s discourse….
And the company offers a treasure trove of traditional academic content that undergraduates paying $50,000 a year may find nowhere on their Club Med-like campuses. This past academic year, for example, a Bowdoin College student interested in American history courses could have taken “Black Women in Atlantic New Orleans,” “Women in American History, 1600-1900,” or “Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl: Gender and the Suburbs,” but if he wanted a course in American political history, the colonial and revolutionary periods, or the Civil War, he would have been out of luck. A Great Courses customer, by contrast, can choose from a cornucopia of American history not yet divvied up into the fiefdoms of race, gender, and sexual orientation, with multiple offerings in the American Revolution, the constitutional period, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, and the intellectual influences on the country’s founding. There are lessons here for the academy, if it will only pay them heed.
The Great Courses program wasn’t begun as a way to combat political correctness on campus. Founder Tom Rollins, a former chief counsel to Senator Ted Kennedy’s Labor and Human Services Committee, started it with the idea of introducing “charismatic” college professor to the general public. He was surprised to learn how hard it was to find lecturers who didn’t confuse teaching with venting their beliefs about sexism, racism, or what have you. But the courses, according to Mac Donald, tend to actually focus on the announced subject-and not the professor’s pet peeve. Alas, you won’t find “Queering of the Alamo” and similar courses here.
Despite such lacunae, Great Courses has attracted a following:
From the start, some customers developed an intensely personal relationship with the product, accusing Rollins of failing if he wasn’t constantly putting out new material. “They’d call me to say, ‘C’mon, Tom, I’m done with your latest; when’s the next one out?’ It was like intellectual crack.” The audience-mostly older professionals with successful careers-sees the liberal arts as a life-changing experience, observes Louis Markos, an English professor at Houston Baptist University who has recorded courses on C. S. Lewis and on literary criticism for the company. “They are hungry for this material.”
The company markets deftly to that hunger. The catalogs are learning opportunities in their own right, tantalizingly laying out the material that each course will cover, such as the contributions and foibles of the Renaissance popes. This peekaboo strategy presumes a burning desire for knowledge on the reader’s part.
Knowledge apparently sells: the company has prospered, earning a reported $20 million in sales last year.
I’ve received the catalogues from Great Courses and flipped through them. They do look delicious, but something in me has held back: have always subscribed to the Great Teacher theory of education, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a few. Not just the lectures but the interaction with the GTs was important. But it may be time for me to revise this view.
Could this be the new college for students hungry for knowledge but not willing to graduate with $100,000 in debts (from taking such courses as androcentric theory)?