Schoolhouse Talk

Daniel Ruen

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.

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.)

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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