From City Journal:
Despite several brushes with mortality in its start-up years, after a decade, the firm was earning $20 million in sales, reported Forbes this January. From the start, some customers developed an intensely personal relationship with the product, accusing Rollins of failing if he wasn’t constantly putting out new material. “They’d call me to say, ‘C’mon, Tom, I’m done with your latest; when’s the next one out?’ It was like intellectual crack.” The audience—mostly older professionals with successful careers—sees the liberal arts as a life-changing experience, observes Louis Markos, an English professor at Houston Baptist University who has recorded courses on C. S. Lewis and on literary criticism for the company. “They are hungry for this material.”
The company markets deftly to that hunger. The catalogs are learning opportunities in their own right, tantalizingly laying out the material that each course will cover, such as the contributions and foibles of the Renaissance popes. This peekaboo strategy presumes a burning desire for knowledge on the reader’s part. “Starting with the Renaissance, the culture of the West exploded,” begins the description of a Western civilization series. Then it irresistibly reels the reader in: “Over the next 600 years, rapid innovations in philosophy, technology, economics, military affairs, and politics allowed what once had been a cultural backwater left by the collapse of the Roman Empire to dominate the world. But how—and why—did this happen? How did the decentralized agrarian principalities of medieval Europe remake themselves into great industrial nation-states? How and why did absolutism rise and then yield to democratic liberalism?”
In promoting its wares, the Great Courses breaks one academic taboo after another. The advertising copy for “Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life” asserts: “Beginning with the definition of 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, Professor Fears examines a body of work that offers an extraordinary gift of wisdom to those willing to receive it”—a statement so reckless that it would get its proponent thrown out of the Modern Language Association’s annual convention. Indeed, one could take the company’s definition of literature in another course description as a rebuke to the prevailing academic mores, not least in its very use of the word “literature” rather than the usual “text”: “While we sometimes think of literature as anything written, it is in fact writing that lays claim to consideration on the grounds of beauty, form, and emotional effect.” The Great Courses’ uninhibited enthusiasm is so alien to contemporary academic discourse that several professors who have recorded for the firm became defensive when I asked them about their course descriptions, emphatically denying any part in writing the copy—as if celebrating beauty were something to be ashamed of.
The most striking thing about the Great Courses’ humanities curriculum, however, is how often the same thinkers appear across a large range of courses. The canon has been “problematized” in the academy, but it is alive and well in these recordings. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Paul, Erasmus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Molière, Pope, Swift, Goethe, and others are foregrounded again and again as touchstones of our civilization. This repetition occurs not because the company is on a mission to resuscitate the canon but because customers want it. The insatiability of the demand for such courses surprises even the producers themselves. “We were reexamining the same material,” says Rollins, “and I kept wondering: ‘How can customers keep buying “Great Ideas of Philosophy” and “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition?” ’ But people bought both. They wanted different takes on Kant, Socrates, and the Enlightenment.”
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.”