Schoolhouse Talk

University lectures on tape may be the most middlebrow product since Reader's Digest. So what's wrong with that?

Alongside the high-end gadgets touted in the back pages of the New York Review of Books and Harper's is a series of advertisements that promise a more profound product for the deep-pocketed reader: "the great courses on tape." Below this trademarked phrase, tweedy professorial types flacking for the Teaching Company stand ready to usher you back through the lecture-hall doors, sit you down, and orate about Great...something or other. Probably you both condescend toward and envy anyone with the wherewithal to shell out the not inconsiderable cash such classes demand: at the low end, $60 for audiotapes on global warming; at the high end, $600 for 42 hours of video covering American literature from Ben Franklin to Toni Morrison. And you've certainly never devoted even a moment's thought to actually buying one of these tapes. Porn from Adam & Eve would be hipper, and more presentable on your living-room table.

As our century winds to a close, though, more and more lists surround us, pointing us to stores of potential erudition. And if you're like me, you've been unable to escape their peculiar gravity. Uneasily scrutinizing the various 100-bests that have been all the rage the past year, I made the right noises about how elitist selection committees fled from new, challenging, and dangerous work and scandalously underrated the products of artists of color. Still, I felt more than slightly abashed that while I was fully capable of delivering a complete lecture series on, say, Television and Family Structure: The Seventies (Lecture III: "The Many Faces of Peter Brady"), I'd seen far too many movies (59 of 100), read more mysteries and Stephen King novels than I should have (44/100 on fiction), and clearly wasted significant and never-to-be-regained hours memorizing how many doubles Lou Gehrig hit in 1929 when I could have been devouring really important historical biographies--a humiliating 15 of 100 nonfiction entries, one of which was the gimme The Elements of Style.

This is, perhaps, the long way of saying that the last thing our culture needs is to get dumber. Watch the standup show that British comic Eddie Izzard taped for HBO, which sidesteps into French and German and includes jokes about imperialism and actual historical events--and then remember the last American standup you saw, riffing as usual on bad L.A. drivers or how men never clean the shower. In that light, a long weekend spent with the Teaching Company's videos proves oddly rewarding; they fill both high-culture and slacker appetites. Take the slightly smarmy ads for the Teaching Company's Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition, which push these tapes as "a priceless opportunity to gain an extraordinary familiarity with all these works within a manageable amount of time"--rather than having you plow through them on your own.

Writing in the New Statesman, one critic attacked such promises as a "false shortcut," endowing viewers with only a smattering of culture. But that's shortsighted: For about a century, hordes of middle-class people have taken such shortcuts to keep up with the few who have enjoyed the leisure time to do the assigned reading. From its turn-of-the-century origins in Harvard president Charles Eliot Norton's "Five-Foot Shelf" (the completion of which would render you acceptably cultured) through the Book-of-the-Month Club, middlebrow culture has long balanced looking good and learning, and has made money by selling cultivation.

Further, these courses offer much more than How-to-Bullshit guides (an actual series I discovered in England last summer). As University of Minnesota economics lecturer (and longtime Teaching Company instructor) Tim Taylor points out, there's "less of a gap than you'd think between [videotapes] and lecturing." When he did his bit before 500 Stanford freshmen, Taylor's "Intro to Econ" was voted "best large lecture on campus." Since his move to Minnesota and to video, Taylor reports that he misses the personal connection all good teachers prize: He has asked the company, "to let us meet some of our folks...and let them meet us." Without such contact, he has no real idea whether, let alone how well, most buyers listen to the majority of his lectures. "You wonder if they go off and sit on a shelf somewhere," he says.

But though his tapes cut back radically on the specialized content you'd get in a university lecture course (offering about 15 hours as opposed to 70), the meat of the matter is exactly the same. Better, the price is right: You pay about $20 an hour to see him on video, versus the more than $100 for the same amount of time at Stanford. (Even at a state school, the same course would run you around $35 an hour.) In addition to its bargain price, video offers significant intellectual advantages. "As a lecturer," Taylor notes of his college classes, "you can't rewind me." Buyers can take their time to work through these shows, explore the suggested readings, and follow an intellectual process that few of us are prepared to undertake when we're 18 years old.

Besides, anyone who uses the Teaching Company as a shortcut won't save much time. It seems at best mean-spirited to sneer at the "laziness" of anyone who spends 12 hours listening to Dartmouth's Peter Saccio discoursing on Shakespeare. And you don't get windy Harold Bloom evocations of Shakespeare's "greatness" here, either. Saccio is sharp, sometimes professorially funny (the playwright "knew more words than God!" he observes, occasioning one of the rare responses from his audience), a little goony, and not afraid of the most recent scholarship. In the accompanying guide, he even recommends theoretically challenging New Historicist works that have fundamentally reshaped the way academics read Shakespeare--a gutsy choice in a market hospitable to Bard genuflection. Even if you've kept up on your Shakespeare, you're sure to learn something, given Saccio's attention to detail and nimble evaluation of language, context, and plot. He's especially good, for instance, when pointing out that his students' romances are every bit as formulaic as those satirized in Love's Labors Lost.

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