David R. Henderson  

What I Thought, at Age 16, Academia was Supposed to Be

The Soul of a Collectivist: Ch... Krugman, Landsburg, Pangloss, ...
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.

. . .
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."

. . .
The very fact that the Great Courses has found professors who teach without self-indulgence may suggest that academia is in better shape than is sometimes supposed. But the firm's 200-plus faculty make up a minute percentage of the country's college teaching corps. And some Great Courses lecturers feel so marginalized on their own campuses, claims Guelzo, that "if the company granted tenure, they would scramble to abandon their current ships and sleep on couches to work for the firm." 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.

This is from Heather MacDonald, "Great Courses, Great Profits: A teaching company gives the public what the academy no longer supplies: a curriculum in the monuments of human thought." City Journal, Summer 2011, Vol. 21, No. 3. The whole thing is worth reading. It's a heroic story of an entrepreneur risking it all. And get this: the entrepreneur, Tom Rollins, once worked in a high-level job for Ted Kennedy.

HT to Lew Rockwell.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (19 to date)
david nh writes:

Ah yes - the disintermediation cometh.

Tom West writes:

The very fact that the Great Courses has found professors who teach without self-indulgence

While personally schooled in the "dead-white guys school of European thought", this sentence suggests that approaching history/political science in any other fashion than the way I was taught is self-indulgent.

Might I suggest that in our modern and no longer culturally monolithic society, there are a myriad of ways to approach something as diverse as political or historical thought?

To be honest, the desire to teach the same old things in the same old manner as one was taught 40 years ago seems a trifle self-indulgent (if perfectly understandable).

I also strongly suspect cherry picking when it comes to finding campuses that have *none* of the old-style conventional courses. If you are looking at private universities, however, I'd say that this is the market at work. You deliver the courses that *students* want, and if you don't, well, it's time to find a new job. Your customer determines your value, not you.

The current set up would seem quite reasonable: new approaches toward history/political thought for the young people who want it, and organizations like Great Courses who serve people like myself, who want to learn more in the same line as we were taught those many years ago (and probably by the same professors :-)).

Mikail writes:

But of course the premise of MacDonald's piece, and Rollins' project, is plain false as can easily be verified by anyone in a matter of seconds. Pick your favorite college. Go to the History Department's front page. Look at the course offerings. Nine times out of ten you'll see students are far from 'out of luck' if they want 'dead white guy plain ole' political history' of exactly the sort Rollins is offering.

The fact that MacDonald's cranky premise is so easily falsified suggests that there's more than a little motivated reasoning and confirmation bias at work, and so the real question is, Why do persons like MacDonald, Rollins and maybe Henderson WANT to believe that somehow the traditional canon is being usurped by...who knows? Hippies? Minorities? Immigrants? It's just weird.

Dave writes:

I've been a customer of The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company) for years. I think it is offering a different kind of service than traditional universities, rather than the same service with a different political angle.

The "universities are havens for extreme leftist politics" trope is overblown, even if it does contain a very small kernel of truth, and some of the Great Courses can be more "liberal" than alluded to here. I think of Bart Ehrman's superb courses on early Christianity, for example. Those aren't your daddy's church history courses.

I can absolutely attest to the superb quality of The Great Courses though. I find the level of scholarship and teaching prowess to be generally much higher than at the universities I have attended.


Dave writes:

Oh, one other thought. Most of their content is in the humanities--even the science courses are taught from a historical or social perspective which is very different from how one might study chemistry, etc. in a university. The success of The Great Courses and other similar ventures (such as iTunesU) I think is also due in part to educated folk moving away from formal study of the humanities since such a degree does not provide enough market advantage relative to cost. However, these people are still interested in history, religion, literature, etc. and so the marketplace is providing a way to study this content outside of a career-centered context.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
In response to your last paragraph about what young people want, check this paragraph from the article:

The biggest question raised by the Great Courses’ success is: Does the curriculum on campuses look so different because undergraduates, unlike adults, actually demand postcolonial studies rather than the Lincoln-Douglas debates? Every indication suggests that the answer is no. “If you say to kids, ‘We’re doing the regendering of medieval Europe,’ they’ll say, ‘No, let’s do medieval kings and queens,’ ” asserts Allitt. “Most kids want classes on the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, World War I, and the American Civil War.” Creative writing is such a popular concentration within the English major, Lerer argues, because it is the one place where students encounter attention to character and plot and can non-ironically celebrate literature’s power.

Troy Camplin writes:

I interviewed with them. Phone interview. Never heard back. It was a position essentially creating these courses. I would have loved the job. Too bad I never heard back.

Tom West writes:

Indeed, I overlooked the end of the article. Thanks for pointing it out.

Maybe this is a case of market failure? :-)

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
You're welcome.
Could be market failure. Or maybe we're not correctly identifying the market. Maybe Bryan Caplan is right that a huge amount of what's going on in traditional "higher education" is signaling. In any case, it can't be just market failure given the huge subsidies that even private higher education gets.

nazgulnarsil writes:

I don't know about others but at my university global warming classes are worth double units and it is hard to construct a curriculum without some sort of oppressed victim focused classes.

roo writes:

the first thing i do when signing up for a class is check if there's a great courses equivalent. between it and khan academy there's probably enough resources for plenty of degrees, but unfortunately not the signalling power.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I'm a serial Great Courses customer!

"Fall and Rise of China" was excellent, it really helped one understand what China has gone through the last 100+ years.

"Biology: The Science of Life" is also great, even for someone who had AP Biology in high school, the professor goes over a lot of details of the experiments that lead up to understanding that chromosomes, and then DNA were the hereditary element. The discussion of evolution really filled out my understanding as well.

Also I've taken "Great World Religions: Hinduism" and "Buddhism".

Mercer writes:

"due in part to educated folk moving away from formal study of the humanities since such a degree does not provide enough market advantage relative to cost."

I agree. History is the subject that most interests me but I got a business degree which is worth more in the job market. Aside from accounting I think most business courses are useless but business degrees are what employers reward.

Eric Hosemann writes:

I love the Teaching Company. Timothy Taylor's introductory economics course is superb, far superior to others I have listened to.

Daniel Robinson's introduction to philosophy is also very good.

Tracy W writes:

The linked article to me sounds like an example of a right-wing bias of the sort that Megan McArdle is talking about.

lemmy caution writes:

I like the teaching company a lot. Lerer's course on English is particularly good. It is disconcerting that the company seems to be leaning on the lecturers:

Seth Lerer claims that the firm told him in the 1990s that some of its clientele would be uncomfortable with his including Black English in his “History of the English Language” course. “They were very conscious of their political demographic,” he says. [...] John McWhorter was told to omit from his linguistics lectures his usual argument that the idea of grammatical “correctness” is an “arbitrary imposition.”

Shangwen writes:

David, thanks for the post and link. I'm a big fan of the company's products.

@Tracy W, I didn't find the article "right-wing", and I wouldn't call myself right-wing. It did take an unvarnished relish in mocking leftist humanities academics (a libertarian and conservative pastime, to be sure), but I would call it polemical rather than biased. I suppose the distinction is that it takes a clear position on the cultural-ideology issue (polemical), but is not saturated with pseudo-facts (bias).

As for the Great Courses, I didn't know anything about them before, but their content has always made me think of the older market that existed for a long time in bourgeois self-improvement. I remember being a kid in the 70s and 80s and hearing about people joining classical music appreciation clubs, or introductions to art history. The idea of culture as ennobling has a lot of appeal, which I think reveals a desire to see humanity as trying to achieve something, rather than humanity as a giant mustache-twirling conspiracy. I'm in the former camp.

Tracy W writes:


But on the other hand, if the article was not biased, what do you make of Mikail's critique?
Take the Bowdoin course catalogue that McDonald directs us toward. There we see course like: "110c - ESD. Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation Europe. "
Or "127c - ESD. Early Modern Europe, from Reformations to Revolutions."
The course descriptions of these to me sound like standard Great Courses coverage. But McDonalds doesn't mention them, perhaps because they wouldn't support her thesis.

Shangwen writes:

Tracy W:

Point taken and conceded. I bow to your pursuit of the facts.

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