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Our Last 50 Referrers

« Donald Pittenger on Flair, Part 2 | Main | Elsewhere »

May 23, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Teaching Company has moved into a new on-sale cycle. Some of the packages that are currently cheap are lecture series that I've loved. Maybe some visitors will enjoy them too.

  • It's hard to imagine a better overview of the Western classical-music tradition than Robert Greenberg's "How to Listen To and Understand Great Music." Greenberg does a great job both of setting the music in historical and biographical context, and of explaining how the music works and what you're meant to be hearing. As a lecturer and presenter, Greenberg's an inspired performer himself. He uses beaucoup musical examples and he never lets the energy or enthusiasm level sag -- this is a man who loves his subject matter, and who loves teaching too. If the package seems expensive at $149, remember what you get for the money: 48 lectures, each one of them 45 engrossing minutes long. This is as good a Music-History 101 class as you'll find at the best colleges.

  • Non-math types who are curious about economics should find Timothy Taylor's "Legacies of Great Economists" a terrific way to get started. This is philosophy via -- thank god -- human interest; Taylor uses history and biography as ways to introduce and explore the thinking of his chosen economists: Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Keynes, Friedman, others. Taylor is an enthusiastic and clear presenter with a rare knack for explaining difficult concepts in accessible English. He's also likably modest where economics' claims are concerned. He isn't one of those arrogant technocrats who wants you to believe that econ offers the key to understanding all phenomena. Taylor has the knowledge and the passion, but he has perspective too. For $15.95, this is a very accessible way to begin enjoying the conversation about economics.

  • Alan Charles Kors' "The Birth of the Modern Mind" is first-class intellectual history: an introduction to the thinkers and thoughts of the European 17th and 18th centuries. To my taste, Kors skimps on the ultra-wonderful Scottish Enlightenment -- he's a bit Continent-besotted. But that's a minor failing. As a survey of the era and of many of its major thinkers -- Locke, Hume, Descartes, Voltaire, etc -- this series is a gem. Learn where many of our "modern" ways of conceiving of and discussing the world come from. Kors is an inspired lecturer who manages to be both fiery and level-headed.

  • David Zarefsky's "Argumentation" isn't the how-to-win-debates treatise you might expect from its title. Instead, it's a beautifully organized presentation of a fascinating and much-underrecognized philosophical topic, namely informal reasoning. We're used to thinking of formal reasoning -- science, physics, math, logic, law -- as something worthy of respect and study. But what about the rest of the thinking-methods we use to get by? Rules of thumb. Common sense. Established habits. Experience. Having-a-feeling-for-it. Blundering our way through. These are all examples of how we manage to make good-enough decisions under conditions of imperfect information -- examples of real-life, on-the-job-type thinking, in other words. Why not give this way of going about things respect and study too? The study of informal reasoning is a field whose Moses is the English philosopher Stephen Toulmin. I take Toulmin to be a major figure -- the equivalent in philosophy of Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander in architecture and urbanism -- and I blogged about him here. Zarefsky's lectures are a calm, lucid, and enlightening introduction.

  • Robert Sapolsky sketches out what's currently known about neurobiology in "Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality." Sapolsky -- the author of the well-known popular science books "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" and "A Primate's Memoir" -- is one of those to-be-cherished speakers who makes science vivid. He's unafraid of metaphor and imagery, and he's clear and concise too, about everything from the innards of the neuron right up to the ways bundles and masses of neurons interact. He isn't shy about armchair philosophizing either. And god bless him for that; I dislike the way so many scientists are reluctant to indulge in speculation about what their knowledge and findings might mean in a broader human sense. I respect that reluctance, of course; it's a mark of being a good scientist. But I'm frustrated by it; I want to know what their musings are. Sapolsky obliges with provocative speculations about consciousness, and about how the givens of our biological wiring might condition our experience. As an artsguy I was transfixed; I got more out of going through Sapolsky's lectures than out of any of the art theory or criticism that I've looked at in recent years.

You can see all the Teaching Company's on-sale lectures series here.

I notice over at Amazon that the DVD of Jack Clayton's 1959 "Room at the Top" can be had for $9.95. That's a good deal on a very good movie. The film is based on John Braine's powerful novel about ambition, sex, and love -- about an unprincipled lower-class provincial boy (Laurence Harvey) who will do almost anything to claw his way to the top. Although the movie (like the novel) arose out of England's Angry Young Man movement, its tone -- cynical and worldy without being heartless -- is unusual for a British film. The film is tense and gritty in the English "Kitchen Sink" manner, but it's also thoughtful, adult, and surprisingly sensual. Laurence Harvey shows a lot of charisma and dynamism as the film's self-obsessed, Julien Sorel-like hero. Simone Signoret gives an erotic, one-for-the-ages performance as the "older" Frenchwoman Harvey dallies with. The film leaves you, by the way, in no doubt whatsoever that she's much, much more familiar with the pleasures of the sack than he is. Youngsters who have been misled into believing that women only began to enjoy sex when '70s feminism gave them permission to do so will learn a lot from "Room at the Top."



posted by Michael at May 23, 2005


I would also add to the mix, "The Foundations Of Western Civilization" by Thomas F.X. Noble, which I'm currently half-way through.

Posted by: Michael Serafin on May 25, 2005 1:33 PM

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