Schoolhouse Talk

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

Lessons like these accentuate the fact that quality instruction is at a premium these days. It's depressing but true that most of these professors, all of them winners of student-voted teaching awards, subsist at the fringes of academia. (Good teaching, after all, brings in much less prestige and outside money than does high-profile research and publishing.) "I'd like you to become ravenous for the subject," gushes Berkeley astronomy prof Alex Filippenko in his first lecture--a sentiment that stands in contrast to the professorial indifference found in many classrooms across the country. Though it may be merely good marketing, the company itself takes pains to improve the quality of instruction by providing a report card with every tape that asks the viewer to comment on every aspect of the program.

This may help explain the seeming success of the Teaching Company, which was founded by Tom Rollins in 1990. The company began producing audio tapes for commuters and soon branched into video. Its more than 80 courses now survey everything from Nietzsche to Einstein, Bach to business statistics. Compared to its competitors, the Teaching Company's roster of credentialed academics makes this the prestige brand. (Competitors include IntelliQuest, which offers similar material, but only on audio, and Knowledge Products, which features geriatric celebrities: George C. Scott recounts "The United States at War"!; Walter Cronkite gives you "The Giants of Political Thought"!; Mars Hill does contemporary culture with a Christian slant.)

Whatever profits Rollins may have accrued don't underwrite much in the way of production values. In many ways the company's programs still bear an appealingly homemade imprint. Flown to the company's Virginia studios to do their thing, academics power through an exhausting four or five lectures a day for three to five days--which no doubt accounts for the occasional verbal misstep--then return a week later if they haven't finished. (At an advance said to be about $500 per lecture, plus a variable royalty rate depending on sales, that's not enough to live on, but as a subsidy for pure intellectual work, it's not bad.)

Daniel Ruen

At its best, the Teaching Company produces "the best PBS specials you've ever seen," as Taylor puts it, but I prefer endearingly lo-fi series like Saccio's Shakespeare to those decked out with graphical bells and whistles such as Economics (rife with charts and tables) or Astronomy. Yet despite mock-Elizabethan musical flourishes that fairly beg you to think of the material as "classy," even the fanciest aren't all that fancy. Typically, you get a lecturer, a podium, and some topical décor (a planet map, a set of swords), with the camera positioned just off to one side. Some of the lecturers look "you" in the eye, while others speak to the crowd (an assortment of local retirees, who must now be very well educated, indeed). For variety there's the occasional change of pace--my favorite being the Oxford-shirted local actors delivering soliloquies and sonnets in Saccio's series.

Despite critics' complaints, these videos are actually the furthest thing from pretentious or easy. In fact, they're adorably clunky but intellectually substantial, and charming in the homespun clarity of their devotion to the material at hand: Wayne's World reads the Modern Library.

That generally positive assessment aside, one can't approach any product of this kind in a vacuum. Consider the politics of schooling in contemporary America. Today's schoolchildren learn math and science from textbooks crammed with product placements; conservatives plead for vouchers that will cripple public education; and for-profit education and "distance learning" promise the most efficient use of "content providers" (teachers) and the least contact time with "end-users" (students). Meanwhile, almost half of American teenagers cannot locate the United States on a map of North America.

In some ways, the Teaching Company is probably not on the side of the angels in these battles: Rollins has spoken of his interest in the burgeoning distance-learning market. At present they're the leading edge of a change that will most probably see our educational system infiltrated by for-profit corporations and perhaps even privatized, with dire consequences for the large number of recent Ph.D.'s scurrying around the edges of the job market. "It'll be ugly down low," Taylor predicts--a pain few of those who can afford these tapes will ever register.

But those changes have far more to do with state and university politics than with the audience for these videos, almost all of whom must be well past the age of enrollment. Ultimately, you have to respect the company's devotion to selling learning qua learning; its ability to fulfill all those educators' fantasies about TV's potential; and, in our aggressively stupid culture, its pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. I suspect that most viewers buy, say, the series on astronomy because they're actually curious about it--not because they're thirsting to BS about neutrinos at cocktail parties.

As a whole, then, this is an entirely emblematic product of today, one equally capable of causing disquiet or optimism. It's more entwined with the market than you'd like, but much less so than it could be. Middlebrow? Yes. A shortcut? Sort of. But a sham version of real education? At this point, no. Given what's out there, anyone with some untapped intellectual ambition could do a lot worse.


For more information, call the Teaching Company at (800) 832-2412 or check the Web site:

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