Great Courses

September 1, 2011

Writing at City Journal, Heather MacDonald has an interesting article on the ‘continuing education’ company The Great Courses (formerly called The Teaching Company). The company, if you don’t know, sells recorded lecture series on a wide variety of subjects: music, the fine arts, history, philosophy, religion, economics, science, and mathematics. The lectures are typically pitched at the level of an introductory college-level course.

Anyway, MacDonald takes an interest both because the courses offered for sale by The Great Courses differ markedly from what one often finds on university campuses (by being more conservative), and because they sell briskly (despite an often hefty price tag). This she takes as an indication that there is an appetite for ‘conservative’ (or, ‘classical liberal’) education that is not well served by the typical modern university. The point is arguable: a glance through the course listings at a local English department turns up quite a number of courses that, judging from the titles, are similar to Great Courses fare — though what they are like in the classroom is something I cannot pretend to know. But MacDonald is surely right when she says that the attitude toward our cultural tradition at Great Courses is not found very often in academic departments. A case in point: a course description at Great Courses defines a ‘great book’ as

one that possesses a great theme of enduring importance, noble language that elevates the soul and ennobles the mind, and a universality that enables it to speak across the ages.

This definition, MacDonald wryly notes, “would get its proponent thrown out of the Modern Language Association’s annual convention”. In general, the Great Courses are built on an admiration of Western civilization, and on the idea of a canon of superior achievements in music, in literature, and in art, and the company is unabashed in claiming that a true education consists in knowing and loving these great works. Even if — in fact, especially if — they are only telling their customers what their customers want to hear (and MacDonald notes that the company is very aware of and responsive to the wishes of their customers), the point is significant. One will look through the Great Courses in vain for anything that reflects the contemporary academy’s fascination with race, class, and gender. According to the people at Great Courses, that’s simply because their customers don’t want to hear about such things. I can well believe it.

There is a lot of background information about the company in the article, which might be interesting to those who appreciate their courses (and, if it is not already evident, I count myself among those who do). Apparently they have quite a bit of difficulty finding faculty members who will teach the material without politicizing it, but, I must say, they do succeed. I listened to a set of lectures on ‘Conservative Tradition’, and when they were over I still did not know whether the lecturer was himself a conservative or not, so evenhanded was he in his treatment of the subject. More recently I listened to the course on ‘History of Christian Theology’ — a very thoughtful and engaging course, by the way — and not until the end was I able to place the lecturer as (probably) a conservative mainline Protestant.

MacDonald does not fail to mention the most popular lecturer at Great Courses: composer and musicologist Robert Greenberg, who teaches all of their courses on music. He is terrific. His love for music is infectious, his knowledge is thorough, and his corny jokes and outlandish metaphors, delivered in his pronounced and intrinsically amusing New Jersey accent, are endearing.

Whatever the real strengths and weaknesses of the academy today, I take the existence of companies like Great Courses (and there are others, such as Modern Scholar) to be encouraging. I am glad that there are others who love our tradition and want to study it in more detail, and I am pleased that there are enough of us to make enterprises like Great Courses feasible.


Is anyone interested in hearing about my favourite Great Courses courses? Perhaps not, but this does not deter me. As it happens, I have heard quite a few, mostly during my daily commute, and mostly on courses borrowed from the library. In no particular order:

11 Responses to “Great Courses”

  1. Bob Dole Says:

    Could you suggest your favorite free lectures that one could find online without spending hundreds of dollars?

    Thank you in advance!

  2. Janet Says:

    Once a year they have a sale where they offer everything for 75 % off.


  3. cburrell Says:

    I did not know that, Janet. It would be worth waiting. As much as I enjoy listening to the lectures, I do think the prices are a bit steep.

    Mr. Dole, I’m afraid I don’t know of a good source of free lectures. I think Stanford University has an extensive set of online lectures for streaming, on a wide variety of topics. You might also try ‘iTunes U’, which I understand is a source for university lectures, but I haven’t tried it.

  4. Hussain Says:

    Ironically, all these courses have made their way to Pirate bay 😦

  5. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I noticed that too. I was happy to read, in the article, that the company is quite profitable nonetheless.

  6. Janet Says:

    Try I found some great lectures by Donna Kleiner who teaches Art History at Yale when I was studying Art History, and they have lectures listed in many subjects by teaches from Yale, Stanford, MIT, UCLA, etc.


  7. Janet Says:

    In this area, many of the Great Courses can be found in libraries.


  8. Hussain Says:

    @Janet. Academicearth is phenomenal. And the fact that they have made everything free for all is just amazing. Thanks for the info. Much appreciated.

  9. Fred Says:

    I requested that they remove me from their mailing list. No reply and no removal. That’s the price you pay for buying one of their courses. Crap

  10. Mac Says:

    I’ve tried one of these, one of Greenberg’s. a couple of years ago–I think it’s just a sort of general intro to classical music. I didn’t get very far in it for the same reason I have stacks of unread books and unheard cds etc.–just can’t seem to find the time. Well, that, and the fact that my wife kept it in her car for about a year. I did listen to the first disc or two and wasn’t quite as taken with Greenberg as you. I had the feeling he might in time start getting on my nerves. I do plan to get to it eventually. I noticed one of their Christianity courses was taught by Bart Ehrman–I think that’s his name–ex-fundamentalist would-be debunker of the faith.

  11. cburrell Says:

    Yes, that is his name. His departures from Christian orthodoxy are not as overt in his courses as in his books, but they do come through to some extent. In the Great Courses stable of lecturers, he is something of an odd man out.

    Oh, Greenberg could certainly be annoying to some. If your taste for corny jokes and emphasis is limited, you’ll quickly tire. He wins me over though, and not just me.

    Janet, I am going to look at the site you mention.

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