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Library Learnings: Heeding Eliza Doolittle’s Wish


Heeding Eliza Doolittle’s wish

“Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” 

Understandably, Eliza Doolittle has had it up to here with Professor Henry Higgins’ regimen that has her endlessly enunciating…correctly, if you please…English-language words; all of them, to hear her tell it [“There isn’t one I haven’t heard”]. “…one more word,” she cries, “and I’ll scream!” She goes on to insist, “Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme! Don’t waste my time, show me!” With lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, “Show me” is, of course, one of the hit songs from the Broadway musical, “My Fair Lady”. 

In this Library Learnings entry let’s heed Eliza’s wish, and, for a change, shine the spotlight on something other than discursive, windy books [well, some are, sometimes]. Instead, this essay points up a cluster of adult education DVDs, seven in all—and all having to do with religion, broadly understood—that have just been added to your Library’s collections. View ‘em, listen to ‘em. You needn’t read a word…go ahead and put aside your wordy book…and still you’ll learn. Lots. 

Each of the new DVDs is a Great Courses lifelong-learning product. If you’re not familiar with The Great Courses, this will be a good place to start: already a decade ago, Bill Gates, in his blog, enthused, “One of my favourite sources for great lectures is The Teaching Company.” The Great Courses is a brand owned by this concern, which was founded in 1990. “Given that the company was established…30 years ago, and is still going strong,” bitdegree.org warranted early this year, “is probably something that is worth keeping in mind!”

Yes, but. “When so much educational material is available online, much of it free, courses like these are something of a throwback,” Sarah Max reports in a 2016 feature story in The New York Times. “For years, Great Courses was just about the only game in town. …But now it faces competition from massive open online courses, or MOOCs, offered by colleges, and even from outlets like You Tube.” 

Yes, but. “The production quality and depth of Great Courses’ material,” Max adds, “is still a cut above most of what is available free.” About that, there’s wide agreement: “The style and production quality of the lessons make them seem very much like produced television series,” Jill Duffy wrote last year in PC Magazine; and wisdomfuel.com has it that the courses “are very high quality, and feel more like watching a National Geographic documentary than a droning lecturer.” It’s as Paul Suijk, president and CEO of The Teaching Company, remarked this spring, “We’ve spent the last 30 years crafting moments and experiences that have given…[viewers] ‘Aha!’ moments.”

Incidentally, in order to avoid perfunctory, tedious instructors, great lengths are gone to: “…talent scouts search for the expert best suited to write the course and present it on camera,” Suijk insists. “You could be Einstein, but if you’re not engaging, you’re not going to cut it. We’re trying to find the professors who are truly special.” They are, The Great Courses organization claims—and this Max put into the opening paragraph of her Times story—“the world’s greatest professors.” She reported education researcher Jonathan Haber’s affirmation: “’If you are interested in lectures, The Great Courses are probably your best option.’” 

Actually, it was a series of video lectures that gave rise to The Great Courses. “As the story has it”—this is how Nevin Martell tells it in a 2015 piece for the Washington Post Magazine—founder Tom Rollins, then a second-year law student at Harvard, was “looking down the barrel of a final exam, on the federal rules of evidence, that he wasn’t prepared for. To cram, he watched 10 hours of videotaped lectures by [an] acclaimed legal professor…. Not only did he find the videos entrancing, he received an ‘A’.”

And here he’d been “prepared for the worst weekend of my life,” he confessed to Max. His binge-viewing weekend “made me realize,” he added, “that we dramatically undervalue the power of great teachers.” 

After a stint as the chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, “Rollins drew up a business plan based on the idea that he would record college-level lectures by what he dubbed ‘super-star teachers,’ and direct-market them…[thereby creating] a ‘home university’ for lifelong learners. He rented a car,” Martell writes, “and drove up and down the east coast, from Georgetown University to Colby College [in Maine], recruiting professors who had a reputation for delivering the goods as speakers.” Max continues the story: “Through direct marketing and abundant print advertising, he built a loyal audience of repeat customers.” 

When, in 2006, Rollins sold The Teaching Company to the private equity investment firm Brentwood Associates, its co-founder, William Barnum, explained, “We look for companies that have great customer loyalty, that are usually owned by the founder, and have some unbelievably cool product and a great customer following….” Brentwood invested $50 million, a majority stake, “with the goal of improving production quality and expanding the company’s reach,” according to Max. “Under Brentwood, the company has more than tripled the circulation of its course catalogues to about 70 million.” 

What The Great Courses organization describes as its “content-rich, proprietary library [now] spans over 1,200 titles, with more than 26,000 lectures, designed to expand horizons [and] deepen understanding….” To be sure, these include the seven courses that have found their way into your church Library. And these are those:  

*  American Religious History, with Patrick Allitt (24 half-hour lectures/from 2001/audience rating of 4.5 [out of 5])

From past to present, this study examines the formal beliefs, ideas, loyalties, and styles of worship, that characterize U.S. religion. As well, Patrick Allitt investigates the links between religion and the social, economic, and political concerns of Americans. He includes biographical sketches and anecdotes about dozens of religious figures, from Mormon prophet Joseph Smith to Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Fundamentalism, civil rights, the Vietnam war, the Supreme Court, the authority of the Bible, church-state separation, the Puritans—all these topics and more are pointed up.

Professor of American history at Emory University, where he’s taught for some three decades, Allitt, an Oxford graduate, was in 2000 appointed to a named professorship of teaching in the humanities. Editor of Major Problems in American Religious History, he served for five years as the director of his school’s Centre for Teaching and Curriculum. He’s front and centre in nine other Great Courses studies, including “The Art of Teaching,” “Victorian Britain,” and “The American West”.  

*  Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, with Mark Muesse (36 lectures/2010/audience rating of 4.4)

In this course, Mark Muesse delves deeply into the stories and legacies of four iconic figures who, for millions of the world’s peoples, remain dynamically alive: they look to the lives, teachings, and actions of these sages for guidance on how to live their lives morally. As The Great Courses organization has it, each of the four “addressed fundamental existential problems within their societies, developing codes of ethics and behaviour that broke with the past, and offered bold new visions of human life.”

With a Ph.D. in the study of religion from Harvard, Muesse is a professor of religious studies, director of the Asian studies program, and director of the Life: Then and Now program, at Rhodes College in Memphis. He has traveled extensively throughout Asia, and has studied at Sri Lanka’s Institute of Integral Education, a wat in Bangkok, Turkey’s Middle East Technical University, and the Himalayan Yogic Institute in Kathmandu, Nepal.

*  Great Figures of the New Testament, with Amy-Jill Levine (24 lectures/2002/audience rating 4.4)

At breakneck speed, Amy-Jill Levine offers up “vivid portraits of the cast of characters in the New Testament,” The Great Courses explains. As one critic for the Midwest Book Review observes, she “deftly discusses details of the person from the perspectives of the Biblical stories, culture, literary criticism; how the church viewed the person through history; and how artists and worshippers have viewed them. Probably one of the most fascinating aspects of the course is how she brings their personalities to life, based on how they spoke, acted, and reacted within the confines of their culture. …This is a great piece of work….”

Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Levine is the New Testament editor of the new Oxford Biblical Commentary Series. Holder of half-a-dozen honorary degrees, she has given across the globe more than 500 lectures on the Bible, Christian-Jewish relations, and religion, gender, and sexuality. In 2019, she became the first Jew to teach New Testament at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute. 

*  The Greatest Controversies in Early Christian History, with Bart Erhman (24 lectures/2013/audience rating 4.4)

Right from the start, compelling controversies—i.e., Was Jesus raised from the dead? Did early Christians accept the Trinity?—have plagued Christianity. They bring into question many common beliefs, and serve as a window on the theological thought that forged the faith’s defining doctrines. These lectures “pierce historical fictions, distortions, and misconceptions,” The Great Courses affirms. “As a historical sleuth, Professor Bart Erhman takes the inquiry down many intriguing paths of discovery.”

Professor of religious studies at The University of North Carolina, Ehrman has written or edited 27 books, including four New York Times’ best-sellers; his newest is Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. When pressed—and he is, often—about his own beliefs, Erhman admits, “I’m not sure what to call myself. I suppose I lean toward ‘agnostic’…because, as a scholar and a professional thinker, I am, at the end of the day, more interested in ‘knowledge’ than ‘faith’.” Still, “When it comes to faith, I am an atheist.”     

*  How Jesus Became God, with Bart Erhman (24 lectures/2014/audience rating 4.3)

In this DVD set, Erhman, considered a Great Courses favourite—see above his biographical paragraph—“takes you deeply into the process by which the divinity of Jesus was first conceived by his followers,” the organization warrants, “demonstrating how this conception was refined over time to become the core of the Christian theology….” In this course, “you’ll enter the minefield of opposing views that developed as early Christians sought to understand how Jesus could be the Son of God.”

*  The Lives of Great Christians, with William Cook (24 lectures/2007/audience rating 4.3)

In this course, which ranges across 21 centuries, William Cook examines, in his own words, “people whose lives are eloquent testimonies to the struggle…to live an authentic Christian life.” Along the way, viewers will meet—along with many others—Mother Teresa, who “acted on her belief that no one, no matter how poor or sick, should die alone”; Gustavo Gutierrez, who championed Liberation Theology; and Father Maximilian Kolbe, who took the place of a family man condemned to death in Auschwitz. 

Recipient of many best-teacher awards, Cook, who has helmed five of The Great Courses—another of them will be added to the SSUC Library collections; see below—is professor of history at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he’s taught since 1970. A world traveler—he’s been to something like 85 countries—and a sometimes-leader of educational tours, he has established a foundation that provides education to some of the poorest children on the planet.  

*  Philosophy and Religion in the West, with Phillip Cary (36 lectures/1999/audience rating 4.4)

In this tour de force, Phillip Cary explores, The Great Courses states, “thousands of years of deep reflection and brilliant debate over the nature of God, the human self, and the world.” He probes the ideas of dozens of “towering and diverse thinkers,” all the way from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, through the likes of Luther, Kant, and Hegel, to Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud; from there, he continues on, examining the secular existentialism of Heidegger, Derrida’s postmodernism, and the concept of the “Other” framed by Levinas. 

Professor of philosophy at Pennsylvania’s Eastern University, Cary took his Ph.D. in philosophy and religious studies at Yale. As a scholar, his speciality is the thought of Augustine, but he’s also published on such subjects as personal knowledge, grace, and the doctrine of the Trinity. He avows that his favourite theologian is Martin Luther, and, indeed, his “95 Theses—Reformation Then and Now: A Film” can be found online. 

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Breaking News! Four more Great Courses to be added to your Library!

Likely by year’s end, these four additional Great Courses programs will be added to your church Library—keep checking the online “Reference books catalogue” to see if they’ve yet made their way onto the shelves [www.ssucedmonton.com/library]:           

*  Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know, with Mark Berkson (24/2012/4.6)

*  History of Christianity II: From the Reformation to the Modern Megachurch, with Molly Worthern (36/2017/4.7)

*  The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions, with Jay Garfield (36/2011/4.5)

*  The World’s Greatest Churches, with William Cook (24/2016/4.9)