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