My Highest Recommendation

I have pimped the Teaching Company (now called the Great Courses) for years on this blog.  I have done over 20 courses, and am nearly addicted to their offerings.  Nothing bums we out more than to read their catalog and find nothing new I want, except when that happens I order something random I don't think I want and usually love it.  I listen to music a lot less than I used to because I often have a Great Course on my mp3 player instead.

Via Econlog comes a great article about the Great Courses, and make me feel a bit better that I am not alone in my obsession.  Its one of those really interesting stories about an entrepreneur who sticks with his vision, right down to his last dollar.

But it is also a depressing read for someone who may soon be sending his kid to a small liberal arts college.  Some excerpts related to current college education:

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’ uninhibited enthusiasm is so alien to contemporary academic discourse that several professors who have recorded for the firm became defensive when I asked them about their course descriptions, emphatically denying any part in writing the copy—as if celebrating beauty were something to be ashamed of....

So totalitarian is the contemporary university that professors have written to 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.”...

In its emphasis on teaching, the company differs radically from the academic world, where “teaching is routinely stigmatized as a lower-order pursuit, and the ‘real’ academic work is research,” notes Allen Guelzo, an American history professor at Gettysburg College. Though colleges ritually berate themselves for not putting a high enough premium on teaching, they inevitably ignore that skill in awarding tenure or extra pay. As for reaching an audience beyond the hallowed walls of academe, perhaps a regular NPR gig would gain notice in the faculty lounge, but not a Great Courses series. Jeremy McInerney, a University of Pennsylvania history professor, told The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1998 that he wouldn’t have taped “Ancient Greek Civilization” for the company if his tenure vote had been in doubt: “This doesn’t win you any further respect. If anything, there’s a danger of people looking down on it, since many people are suspicious of anything that reeks of popularism.” So much for the academy’s supposed stance against elitism....

Further, it isn’t clear that the Great Courses professors teach the same way back on their home campuses. 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.

While I took a fair number of liberal arts courses, being an engineer really sheltered me from this kind of BS.  But my kids interests run more towards liberal arts, and while I am working to enforce the double major approach (you can take whatever major interests you as long as you double it with economics or something useful), I still despair that they really are going to get what they think they will get at college.


  1. m:

    How does Great Courses compare to Khan Academy or courses from major universities (OpenCourseWare at MIT, for example)?

  2. sch:

    Khan Academy is oriented more to JHS/HS and some grade school content, but covers a wider range in bite sized pieces
    for those with short attention spans. Judging from my wife's delving into about a dozen of these now, GC is AP HS or college
    level with one hour lectures ranging upto a semesters length class in a subject. Not much CG enhancement in the
    ones I have looked at. The cosmology ones are about 6-10yrs behind current events. Wife also loves them, but once
    you get on the mail list the catalogs come about once/week. Check out your library for some samples, ours have whole
    bunches of them.

  3. Allen:

    The older I get, the more anxious I get for the current higher education system to just hurry up and implode.

  4. Dan:

    That Bowdoin course list is depressing. Sounds like nothing has changed in the nearly 20 years since I finished college and was hearing people rail against learning about "dead white males."

  5. Dan:

    It's crazy that professors are teaching the Civil War as if it were a slave uprising. That's an outrage.

  6. Mark:

    You don't have to pay for his college than. Have him go elsewhere, like Hillsdale liberal arts college in Michigan has a very libertarian bent.

    There are other more conservative/libertarian campuses

    University of Chicago is also a decent choice.

    Notre Dame is still relatively conservative.

    I am sure a bit of Internet research and you can find at least two dozen decent colleges that are liberal arts, but will give your kid a real education.

    Why send him off to Connecticut to be miserable for 4 years?

  7. Mark:

    Another note Hillsdale is so independent, they don't let their students take federally subsidized student loans, because if they did, the federal government would be able to compel them to change their procedures and force them to take demographics, etc.

    they also public an interesting public policy newsletter - available online now - which you would find quite interesting.

  8. Engineer Bob:

    I like GC a lot. I'm mostly taking classes in History, Literature, and Music. As a high tech product developer, I don't feel much need to dip into their STEM offerings.

    I know there are a lot of free offerings, like Khan and MIT. They don't overlap my current interests very much.

    So, I'm willing to put hard $$$ on the table to be entertained in a way that suits me.

  9. Engineer Bob:

    By the way, the biggest improvement that GC needs to do to their products, in my opinion, is to up their animation game a bit. There are various really great *cheap* and *easy* animation techniques that others are doing that would improve their classes.

    If they learned how to do it well, they could even publish a class on the techniques :-)

  10. Maureen:

    The Modern Scholar audiobook series also has its moments -- namely, Michael Drout from Wheaton College. His Old English lit/Anglo-Saxon history course is truly superb. (I took some excellent classes in that area in real college, but his work was a step up.) He has several other classes available which I haven't downloaded but which people seem to like a lot: rhetoric/literature, fantasy literature, history of English, Chaucer, etc.

  11. Smock Puppet, Shadenfreude Expert To The Stars:

    >>> This past academic year, for example, a Bowdoin College student interested in American history courses could have taken...

    Sorta says an awful lot about the value of a "liberal arts education" from Bowdoin, doesn't it?

    Jus' Sayin'...

  12. RandomReal[]:

    As always, be careful and check sources. While the courses listed are there, there were also offerings such as:

    American Society in the New Nation, 1763-1840

    Borderlands and Empires in Early North America

    The City as American History (could be interesting, the prof has an environmental slant, but even Stewart Brand speaks well of cities)

    California Dreamin': A History of the Golden State (snazzy title but potentially interesting, especially from a libertarian perspective)

    The Cold War

    There are others, but the situation is not as dire as portrayed. Certainly, there is an emphasis on gender, race and environment, but this emphasis comes at a price: dwindling enrollment in liberal arts majors at many colleges. Talking with local undergraduates, they are pretty board with the gender, race and environment emphasis, and if they take such a course, they usually game it to get a good grade -- today's undergraduates are not stupid. Bowdoin is probably no different from other colleges, though my Bowdoin alumni relatives (grandfather, great-grandfather, uncles, great-uncles, etc.,etc.) are probably spinning in their graves.

    That said, it is relatively easy to asses the emphasis and teaching quality at any college. All of the course descriptions are on line, as well as some course materials. Each professor/lecturer has their own web site and published materials. Also, there are a number of on line sites that rate professors (caveat emptor) and should give an overall view of the teaching quality of each of the professors.

    Once you have narrowed down your choices, you might try to find recent graduates to have a talk with (your contacts throughout the Ivy League should help). More legwork, but there are many more resources available now to match interest, rigor, and philosophy. Good luck.

  13. J. W.:

    I'm with Mark here. Check out Hillsdale College. The course catalog reads like a listing of courses from the Teaching Company. Here are some examples under History: Ancient Greece; Ancient Rome; The Mediterranean World of Late Antiquity; Early Middle Ages; High and Late Middle Ages; Europe, 1618-1798; Colonial America to 1763; The Founding of the American Republic; Jacksonian America; Sectionalism and the American Civil War; and Reconstruction to World War II.

  14. supermike:

    Cool. I've lately become sort of obsessed with e-learning. I get most of mine from Apple's Itunes U. Unfortunately I'm treating them like audiobooks while I drive or do other boring stuff, so for things like math where you have to work the problems, I may not get as much.

    Some favorites:

    MIT's chemistry 3.091. I would heartily encourage anyone with any interest in science to listen to 3.091. It's unusual because it's Solid-State chemistry. Some highlights: Includes a lot of history, including the story of the discovery of X-Rays. Glasses and polymers, semiconductors, rudimentary crystallography. Lots more

    Yale's Ancient Greek History with Donald Kagan: Much I didn't know about things before the golden age. Good explanation of Ancient Greek agriculture and economy. The professor is practically bursting with enthusiasm for the classical worldview and draws interesting analogies to recent events throughout. If you love Western Civilization, this is for you.

    MIT's Aircraft Systems Engineering: Everything you wanted to know about the Space Shuttle, by the men that built and flew it. Taught by a retired astronaut and a retired NASA engineer, it's almost as good a history lesson as a view into the world of a systems engineer. Systems engineering is all about tradeoffs, performance and specification.

    Yale's Financial Theory: Taught by a hedge-fund-running professor, I'm not that far into it, but so far it's pretty good. Finance with a lot of economics.

  15. Brian:

    Most liberal arts colleges are as bad about teaching economics as they are the other social sciences. A minor in economics might only qualify as "something useful" in that it looks good on paper, but I don't think you'll be picking up much in the way useful knowledge in that area of study. Accounting minors are still useful in that they're based more on math and processes and less on political motivations.

    I went for an engineering major with a business minor, so I got to see how very different are the hard sciences from the soft sciences. Mainly in how they are taught, but also in the types of people that you find in the classes. It's always easy to spot the engineers in the social science and liberal arts classes.

  16. Slocum:

    I've been pushing the double major approach on my kids also, and I've been telling them that universities are not for learning interesting things (you don't need the expensive spoon-feeding of college for that -- you have your whole life to learn about things that interest you on your own and at minimal cost). College is about getting certified in something that people will be willing to pay you for. Otherwise it's a waste of years and tens of thousands of dollars.

    It was one thing when tuition was much lower and college grads were rare enough that businesses were more willing to hire them regardless of the field of study. But the world has changed. Costs have gone through the roof and there are plenty of out-of-work liberal-arts BAs. But at the same time, it's never been cheaper or easier to explore any topic that interests you on your own.

    Also, BTW, we have avoided the ripoff of student loans like the plague. If you need to do two years on community college, do it (not only is it vastly cheaper, but the instruction is significantly better than at most state universities during the first two years -- at community colleges, there are none of the cash-cow 400 student lecture sections).

  17. Ted Rado:

    One question I have about liberal arts education. What do you do for a living afterwards? I am an engineer who had almost no liberal arts courses (freshman English only). One of my interests is history, mainly military history. I have hundreds of volumes in my personal library. I also had a marvelous classical record collection (hundreds of LP's) and studied music theory and history on my own. I took no formal history or music classes.

    Much of liberal arts can be studied at one's leisure after university. Many technical and scientific studies need explanation from a teacher. If the end result of your college experience is to earn a living wage, don't major in art, music, lit, etc.

    When in college, I was told that I was "a barbarian with a sliderule", but inasmuch as I can readily read history etc. on my own, I feel I lost nothing by studying engineering. I am not suggesting that everyone study science, engineering, accounting, and other subjects that lead to a commercially useful degree, but have a plan B if you don't, such as a rich father.

    I have read that while there is high unemployment, there is a shortage of qualified people in many fields. One has to prepare oneself for the real workplace, not just study things of personal interest.

  18. Lee:

    I have 15 - 20 of their offerings and agree that they are outstanding. Professor Guelzo's American History lectures in particular are addicting--I wish I had had more professors with his presentation skills when I was at UCLA. I also strongly recommend them, but wait until the offer a sale to get the best deal.

  19. Jeff:

    I've done 6 of the great courses so far (3 more in the hopper) and I'd recommend them for anyone who has the time and interest. Frequent sales make it damn near impossible not to partake.


  20. Daublin:

    I would tentatively second Ted's comment. Are you really anticipating a 50k/year tuition? So about $200k for this venture? What do you expect to come out of such a large expenditure?

    I grew up in a family where we were all encouraged to simply follow our muse, to all be special snowflakes, and that in the end it will all work out in some magical way. I'm not so sure it was the best idea.

    Focusing on a career, nowadays, does not mean you go to work at the local mill. It means that you spend 2+ years learning a skill that is both interesting to you and also has earnings potential. It doesn't have to be a skill with math in it.

  21. Celeste:

    St. John's College - Great Books, straight from the source. Where you learn to learn, think, and write. Annapolis MD or Santa Fe NM