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April 15, 2003

History Lecture Series Recommendations


It's a bizarrely stuffy 80 degrees here in NYC. After a week of chill and damp, people look shellshocked by the good weather. By tax day, too -- but at least my walk to and from the tax accountant was made less painful by the audiotape lecture series I've been listening to.

It's one of the good ones from The Teaching Company (here). Although I'm wary of The Teaching Company's history offerings -- here's one I couldn't get through, and here's one that's even worse -- I've got to admit that my batting average has been better with them than it was taking history at our Lousy Ivy University. Which gives me hope in a general sense: Even if schools go on getting worse, what's available for self-educators keeps getting better. Hey, fellow Web inhabitants -- let's swap tips about resources for self-education.

In that spirit, I'd like to recommend the Teaching Company history series that I've enjoyed. It's been a while since I listened to Alan Charles Kors' two series on the Enlightenment, so I can't do them descriptive justice. But they were blazingly good -- well-judged yet impassioned. This one here is about the intellectual history of the 17th and 18th centuries -- it's the one to start with. This one here is about Voltaire, and is superb too, if narrower in its focus. (It's currently on sale for the beyond-fabulous price of $15.95.) My only beef with Kors is that he barely touches on the too-little-known Scottish Enlightenment. But for events and thinking on the Continent, it's hard to imagine anyone doing better. Kors, a history prof at the University of Pennsylvania, is a great figure, by the way. In addition to being a tiptop lecturer, he's founder and head of FIRE, an organization that fights PC attempts to limit freedom of speech on campus, and he's the co-author (along with Harvey Silverglate) of the excellent book The Shadow University (buyable here), about the excesses of PC and multiculturalism on campus.

The Teaching Company series I'm finishing up just now is just as good: American Religious History, by Patrick Allitt of Emory University. Allitt does a first-rate job of explaining the various Great Awakenings, and of taking in the whole panorama. He discusses Native American religions, introduces us to amazing characters like Uncle Jack, an early black preacher, and lets us know why the stodgier Protestants looked down on the frontier-revival-meeting business. (Answer: Because the preachers worked worshippers into such a state of enthusiasm that the bushes just beyond reach of the campfires would fill up with a lot of the old humpy-humpy.)

carrie nation.jpg

That's Miss Carrie Nation to you, buster. And take your eyes off my axe!

Allitt has a nice way with the telling and memorable fact. For instance, I hadn't known that more women were involved in the temperance movement than in getting the vote. Carrie Nation -- she who chopped up bars -- was no dimwit when it came to p.r.; one of her fund-raising schemes involved selling miniature versions of the ax she used, complete with Carrie Nation signature. Did Christian Science become popular simply because, as I always imagined, Americans can be such rubes and suckers? The real reason had to do with how bad conventional medicine was -- so bad that, if you went to a doctor or a hospital, you were as likely to pick up something awful as you were to be cured. So you stood a better chance of flourishing if you ate well, lived a virtuous life, thought good thoughts and avoided medical treatment at all costs. And in fact, as medicine has gotten better, the popularity of Christian Science has declined.

Religion turns out to be a surprisingly interesting lens through which to observe American history. Here come the Irish Catholics; now we're admidst the quarrels between German Reform Jews and the later waves of the Eastern European Orthodox; now we're watching the spins that African-Americans put on Protestantism. Allitt himself comes across as remarkably sweet-natured and helpful, respectful of your curiosity and willing to explain what needs explaining. He displays the British virtues of clarity, fair-mindedness and organization, along with none of the too-common attendant snobbery. (His accent is likable too -- it's like something from an Alan Bennett play, or from "Chicken Run.")

The Spirit making its presence felt, American-style

It's usual to see America -- full of churchgoers and ever-branching new sects -- through European and Ivy eyes as a place of of ignorant, superstitious barbarians, a place forever on the verge of tumbling into scary, white-hoods-and-burning-crosses weirdness. Allitt has a refreshingly different take. He seems to have no desire to tell us how we ought to see ourselves, let alone how we ought to behave. Instead, he seems downright beguiled by America. To him, our zany and ever-changing religious sphere is a sign of health. He argues that what has made the big difference is that America doesn't have an official religion. Why should this matter? Because, in his view, the usual effect of making a religion official is that, while the religious bureaucracy may prosper, the people lose interest -- state monopolies don't work any better in religion than they do in most domains. America has benefited from having a free market of religion. And thanks to it, religions have had to renew themselves, make their wares appealing, and pitch them attractively. Religions thrive here not because we're idiots, but because they can.

Amanda Smith: One of the first women evangelists

It's a very helpful and enjoyable series. I recall, for instance, that one of my grandfathers used to go listen to a fire-and-brimstone preacher every Sunday -- it was his preferred entertainment form. Now I know a bit about that tradition. My other grandparents were midwestern Christian Scientists. I now have a sense where that came from. Allitt's series makes a nice companion piece, come to think of it, to Thomas Sowell's wonderful Ethnic America (buyable here as a conventional book; rentable here as an audiobook) -- you finish both of them marveling at how stupid you were before you began them. Why are German-Americans the way they are? Why are Southern Baptists the way they are? These works help answer such basic questions.

Allitt's series is buyable here. As always with the Teaching Company's series, don't buy it until it's put on sale (which happens with all their courses a couple of times a year), unless you have money to burn. On sale, though, these are terrific values.

Off tonight with the Wife the the New York City Opera to see Handel's "Flavio." Which I suppose sounds impressive -- I know I'm impressing myself as I type these words. Fact is, I barely know opera at all, and this will be my very first evening of Handel. Hey, at this rate in seven or eight more lifetimes I'll be an opera queen. Well, I'll know a little something more about opera than I do now, anyway.



posted by Michael at April 15, 2003


Trivia if you're interested, and if the tape didn't mention it - My Mother and Grandmother were Christian Scientests, and my Grandmother, in fact, studied to be one of their faith healers - "think good thoughts" specialists known as Practitioners, who can (or at least could) get their training at a university called, if I remember correctly, Principia.

I still recall the portrait of Mary Baker Eddy staring solemnly down from the attic rafters...

Well, anyhow, I'm a Baptist now, My aunt is Lutheran, and my dad was Catholic, so I can never keep a straight face when I sing that old hymn, "Faith of our Fathers"!

Posted by: Liz L on April 16, 2003 03:06 AM

Hey Liz, that's great, thanks. My grandfather was a "practitioner" too, which I guess means that he'd go and help people pray, is that right? According to this lecture series, Christian Scientists believe, or believed, that you really could live forever, provided you lived and thoughts purely enough. My poor grandfather was, as I remember it, doubly devastated when his wife fell ill and died. I wonder if he felt the two of them had inoculated themselves against death by virtue of being good Christian Scientists, and that something was wrong here.

Somebody somewhere should do a good, snappy, short book on Christian Science -- history and influence thereof. And then I'd listen to it on audio.

What was it like growing up in a Christian Science household? My dad rebelled, so I didn't, myself. Zany as my grandparents' religion may have been, they were certainly (as midwesterners love to say) "lovely people."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 16, 2003 11:30 AM

Hey, Michael--I followed your link and noticed there were several courses on music available. Just curious if you've tried any of them, and how you found them.

Posted by: Mark Dellelo on April 16, 2003 11:49 AM

Hey Mark, I've gone through a couple of the Robert Greenberg (I think I'm getting his name right) courses on western classical music, and they're superb. I've been brewing up an appreciation of them for the blog for a while, but why not spill the beans now? About as good as music-appreciation gets, is what it boils down to. Lots of history and biography, tons of enthusiasm and examples. And a nice combo of attentiveness to technical matters and ability to put it all into straightforward English. Truly fab. And if you buy 'em on sale, an incredible bargain. The intro to western classical music and the intro to opera are amazing survey classes -- I think when they go on sale they're about 65 bucks. 65 bucks! I've gone through the Bach set too, and it's a mind-blower as well. One caveat is that my ears and mind are fairly balky where Western art music's concerned, so I'm very appreciative when someone takes the trouble to spell out the basics. If you manage these things more easily than I do, you may find the tapes too basic. But let me know how you react if you give them a try.

Have you got any self-education tips to pass along yourself?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 16, 2003 12:21 PM

2 books by Fred Plotkin, OPERA 101,and the recently published CLASSICAL MUSIC 101 are, in my view, invaluable guides for the novicein both fields, which I am!

Posted by: Michael Serafin on April 16, 2003 01:55 PM

Opera gives me cramps. The only opera song I like (by Puccini) is sung by a clown, and clowns scare me. The only clown that doesn't scare me is Krusty, and he doesn't sing opera. Thus...

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 16, 2003 04:45 PM


Ibuprofen, about 800mg, is really good for cramps as undoubtedly the women in your life can tell you. Take some and quit complaining. ;o)

What scares me about your comment is that I know who Krusty is, not to mention Itchy and Scratchy, and I doubt I could recognize a melody from Puccini if my life depended on it.


Posted by: Deb on April 16, 2003 06:04 PM

Michael and cronies,

I just stumbled on to your site and would like to back up your praise for the Teaching Company. I learn much more from them, more cheaply, and more efficiently than any college course I ever took. Do you take long car drives? You NEED these tapes. Do you do tasks that keep your hands busy (like having a baby)? You NEED these tapes.

My two best friends PUMMELLED me for this, but the best vacation I ever spent went like this. I bought the Teaching company's Civil War course (the most outstanding one I've done so far), and 4 of the recommended books on the reading list. I then cleared 10 days off completely. I woke every morning at 6. Did one lecture and one reading, ran 5 miles, did 3-4 more lectures and the readings. Done by 6pm and cooked a nice dinner for my wife.

At the end of 10 days I had a solid undergraduate level understanding of the most important conflict in the country's history.

My friends berated me for this because they said I should have instead used the time to travel to civil war sites. I responded that my goal in life is to be a traveled mind, not a traveled body. Traveling, in and of itself, I actually hate. It's only when I have internalized the context of what I am seeing that I appreciate it.

P.S. The main text for the course is "Battle Cry of Freedom". Michael or Friedrich, as a reward for an outstanding site I will send the first one to respond to me a free copy. It is the best work of history I have ever read, full stop.

Posted by: Robert Holzbach on April 17, 2003 11:39 AM

Hi Robert, glad to hear you're enjoying the site (try the archives! tell your friends!) and many thanks for the tip about the Teaching Company's Civil War series. Swapping these kinds of tips is one of the things the webs and blogs should be especially good for, don't you think? I envy the organized way you go about your TeachCo listening too. I'm such a scatterbrain by comparison -- I wind up lost in the midst of about four unrelated books plus a TeachCo audio set at the same time. No wonder I can't remember my name half the time...

Thanks for dropping by, and please be sure to pass any other recommendations along. Nice to meet another self-education enthusiast. Have you tried their science courses? I'm eager to. Avoid the "Neolithic Europe" series like the plague ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 17, 2003 04:35 PM


Glad I found your site too, and I will be passing the word on. No, I've never tried the science tapes. I'm married to an Astrophysicist has seem to have delegated all science learning to her. I'm the ex-philsophy major, humanities enthusiast. Hopefully the dichotomy will work out well for our kids.

The organization did help. I've done their Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, and Rhetoric of Abe Lincoln courses so far, but usually during long commutes or along with house chores, and I don't think the course had the same staying power with me. Of course, the Civil War though complex is a narrative and that helps one link long strings of facts and themes together in one's mind.

I'm doing the Shakespeare one now and give it a strong recommendation. If you were put off by the slightly more bland delivery style of the lecturer for the Roman course, you'll enjoy the more energetic personal style of the Shakespeare one. I listen to his commentary on the plays I haven't read and it never fails to provoke me into reading them.

One last self-education tip. Check out the Athenaeum of Boston next time you are in the city. Look under Events and reading groups. I've been going to their New England Seminar (currently doing Tocqueville) and loving it. The library attracts a neat mix of academics and laypeople. Much better intellectual scene than college.

I looked at your archives but was frustrated that I couldn't find an subject header on the subject of "lousy Ivy League educations" that you mention. An acquaintance of mine recently told me that he found Harvard undergrad "surprisingly unintellectual" and I'm dying to find out what he meant by that. I went to Brown, Pitt, and the LSE and I can say that the differences in levels of students' intellectual curiousity weren't very significant (meaning typically low). Still, I always thought that wouldn't hold at Harvard or Yale. Tell me more!

Hey, no takers on my offer for a free "Battle Cry of Freedom"? Amazing tome.



Posted by: Robert Holzbach on April 17, 2003 11:30 PM

Hi, I would like to comment on some Teaching company offerings as I am a longtime (mostly) satisfied customer.

I found Professor Rufus Fears courses to be very interesting and insightful. He has done courses for the Teaching company on The History of Freedom, Famous Greeks, Famous Romans, and Winston Churchill. He is a wonderfully dynamic lecturer and storyteller. Fortunately he deviates from the academic approach of History being comprised only of anonymous social and economic forces and instead gives greater emphasis to the role of ideas, great individuals and great events to shape history.

I also have very much enjoyed Professor Elizabeth Vandiver's courses on The Iliad, The Odyssey and Greek tragedy. They are very enjoyable and insightful and quite helpful as an accompanyment to reading these great works.

I am in complete agreement with Michaels endorsment of Robert Greenberg's courses on Western music. I have not yet tried the specific courses he recommended but very much enjoyed the Greenberg courses on Beethoven, Liszt, and Brahms. He is an enthusiatic and interesting speaker who imparts all kinds of interesting biographical and historical information.

Robert, thank you very much for the above comments and advice. I will take you up on your recommendation to check out the Civil war course. Also your praise of The Teaching company Shakespeare courses is also on the mark. I highly recommend the Shakespeare courses. I also found the Roman History course to be a bit bland. I am very interested in Ancient history but just found his delivery and speaking style to be a bit below that of some of the other dynamic speakers.

Thank you Michael and Friedrich for the wonderful and educational website. I am going to put Prof. Taylor's economic courses on my Teaching Company wish list.

Best regards,


Posted by: Mark Thompson on April 18, 2003 10:17 AM

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