courses reviewed by Philip
Greenspun; updated October 2009
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The Teaching Company sells interesting courses on cassette tape, audio
CD, and video tape. A complete catalog with prices and online ordering
is available at www.teach12.com.
Below are reviews of some of the more interesting courses that I've
tried. Courses are backed by an unconditional money-back guarantee. If
you don't like it, the Teaching Company refunds your money.
- History of Hitler's Empire; Thomas Childers. Winner. Important
for anyone interested in political processes in America today.
- From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History. Kenneth Hammond is
the teacher and holds one's attention reasonably well. It would be nice
to be listening with a detailed map of China in hand.
- History of Ancient Egypt by Bob Brier. A+. Vividly evokes the
daily life of the ancients. Three thousand years of history fly by
during 24 hours of lectures.
Law & Economics
- Economics; Timothy Taylor. Boring. This is the kind of professor
who is popular with MBA students because he is sort of like them,
shallow, young, credential-grubbing, and soulless. Economics is
fundamentally dull and simple, most of the interesting stuff is
mathematical. Taylor belabors trivial points over 20 lectures that an
MIT undergrad could absorb in 5.
- Negligence and Torts; Frank Cross. Real law taught by a real lawyer.
Awesome. You need to know this. You will never learn it in a more
painless manner. Cross's examples are funny, illuminating, and
- Contracts; Frank Cross. As above, more or less, except that
contracts is a somewhat less interesting topic for most people.
- Great Authors; various. Winner. Eighty lectures that will give
you a new appreciation for 3000 years of literature and inspire you to
read the works discussed. I never learned about Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight at MIT.
- Shakespeare; Peter Saccio. Winner. Saccio uncovers fun and
meaning in plays both obscure and familiar.
- Science Fiction; Eric Rabkin. Good. I've never cared for most
science fiction, but Rabkin shows its significance and helped me
understand my fellow MIT community members. Not boring, but won't
stimulate profound thought. [A couple of years after I wrote the
preceding, I lifted a quote from the Rabkin course and stuck it in
Chapter 15 of my book on Web publishing.]
- Urban Life; Arnold Weinstein. Winner. Draws on thousands of
years of writing to illuminate the effects of the city on human life.
- Understanding Literature and Life: Drama, Poetry, and Narrative;
Arnold Weinstein. Excellent. The 64 lectures would be worth it if you
only took away Weinstein's idea of why we have plays, poems, and novels
(rather than just one literary form). But there is so much to like here
and Weinstein brings in a lot of unexpected works (though it is annoying
the way he constantly refers to them as "texts").
- How to Understand the Listen to Great Music; Robert Greenberg. Very
good. I have 2000 classical LPs and have read the jacket copy for most
of them. Still, I learned a lot of great ways to look at musical ideas
from Greenberg. Also, he embellishes his lectures with some fun
anecdotes, e.g., how Bach gets fired from his job by Prince Leopold of
Köthen's new wife.
- Bach and the High Baroque; Robert Greenberg. Challenging while
driving. It is fascinating to go deeper into some musical ideas but I
think this might be too difficult (1) with the distractions of the road,
(2) without some graphic aids. Get the video version and watch it at
- Stravinsky, also by Greenberg. Easy to follow while driving and
interesting because Stravinsky's career covers so much of the
development of 20th century music.
The unexamined life is not worth living.
- Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition; various but
mostly Michael Sugrue and Darren Staloff. Fair to Excellent but
mostly Excellent. These 70 lectures cover 3000 years of philosophy
sufficiently well that you'll be able to hold your own at an Ivy
League cocktail party. You'll also probably be inspired to do a
little reading. The main problem with the class is that the two main
lecturers are too young (under 40?) and can get on your nerves at times.
- Freedom, the Philosophy of Liberation; Dennis Dalton. Winner. A
fabulous blend of history, philosophy, and political theory.
- Self under Siege; Rick Roderick. Fair. Roderick is scornful of
bourgeois suburban American life. This may make him popular with
college students, but it is grating on adult ears (at least the ears
of this bourgeois American suburbanite!). On the other hand, Roderick
is very strong on translating abstract philosophies into terms that
modern people can understand.
- Birth of the Modern Mind; Alan Charles Kors. Excellent. Kors
brings the Enlightenment to life, continued in the Mind of the
Enlightenment, which is also very good.
- History of Science: 1700-1900. Fair. Frederick Gregory is
the teacher and takes a long time to get started. The entire first
lecture can be skipped, as can most of the second. At least in the
audio version, there isn't quite enough science in these lectures and
Gregory does not explain scientific principles in any detail. Fairly
strong on personalities and biographies.
Physics is hard. MIT freshman physics is where I learned that I was
- Cosmic Questions; Robert Kirshner. Winner. Kirshner is at Harvard
and listening to him you can understand why hey have such a strong
astrophysics program. My astrophyicist friends tell me that they have
to be broader than any other physicists in order to combine knowledge
from many sources to figure out what goes on out there. Kirshner
shows you the process.
- Relativity and the Quantum Revolution; Richard Wolfson. Don't try
this one in your car. I did and you'd have to pull over every five
minutes to inspect a drawing in the booklet and think. Physics is
hard; get this on video. The examples are well chosen.
Dennis Dalton has some of the most interesting perspectives on political
theory, illuminating them with philosophy from the Greeks and Indians.
His Power Over People class (two parts) is worthwhile, as
is Freedom: The Philosophy of Liberation.
I have a theory that every Jewish woman on the East Coast is either in
therapy or is herself a therapist. Among my friends and their
friends, this appears to be true to a first approximation. I'd never
taken a "real psych" class in college so this was my chance...
- Explaining Social Deviance; Paul Root Wolpe. Fair. Really a
sociology course and the best thing about it is that it shows how
confused and tentative are the thought processes of sociologists.
- Abnormal Psych; Drew Westen. Excellent. Now you won't be
overmatched when a friend starts spewing psychobabble to explain your
thinking. Explains this Freud guy.
- Comparative Religions; Robert Oden. Winner. You aren't going to
make too many friends if you go to an Orthodox dinner and tell people
about all the stuff in the Hebrew Bible that was lifted from earlier
religious texts, but hey.
- Great World Religons; various. Mixed. This is a five-part series.
Some of the lectures are almost laughably bad, e.g., John Swanson's
Islam. I listened to it with an MIT undergrad and she couldn't believe
how many words it took him to say something simple, how much time was
wasted in repetition or saying what he was going to say. But you can
order the pieces separately. To me the Jewish and Islamic courses were
the weakest; Diana Eck's Religions of India the strongest.
Looking back over these reviews, I feel bad for having dissed some of
these courses. After all, is it fair for a high school dropout to judge
a PhD in humanities? Probably not. However, take these reviews as
expressions of what an average engineer can get out of these courses.
Someone with a good liberal arts education would no doubt find more to
like in some of them.
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