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July 05, 2006

Kenneth Harl on the Ancient Near East

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A while ago I wrote about how much I'd enjoyed a Teaching Company lecture series by Kenneth Harl entitled "Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor." I recently finished another Harl lecture series -- "Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations" -- and I enjoyed it just as much. It's one of the Teaching Company's shorter programs -- twelve 30-minute lectures -- and it's clearly meant to serve as an introductory survey. It covers a huge amount of ground: around 3000 years, from the beginnings of settlements in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys to the Persian Empire. So it's a very speedy overview of the world out of which the old familiars (Egypt, Greece, Rome) grew.

I can't say that I now carry around a vivid picture of these nations and tribes: among them, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Hebrews, the Sumerians, and the Assyrians. But I've wanted to find out a bit about these peoples for ages, and I'm grateful that I now have a general, eagle-eye impression of them. (Back here I wrote about how much I love 101-style introductions to subjects.)

With these two series, Harl has become one of my favorite audio presenters. His speaking voice is a long way from being the silken, clear, calm-yet-impassioned instrument that Charlton Griffin's is. (For my money, Charlton -- who I'm thrilled to say visits 2Blowhards occasionally -- is the best reader of audiobooks ever. You can explore the ultra-classy and mega-satisfying audiobooks that Charlton produces and presents here.) But Harl has lots of virtues of his own. He tempers scholarly zeal with a sense of perspective; his knack for doling out information in appropriately-scaled ways is really impressive. He respects the fact that, for many of us, he's delivering what's likely to be our one and only jaunt through the material; although he keeps the information coming at a cracking pace, he doesn't lose track of the larger movements and sweeps. He's modest about how much can be known about eras so very distant to ours, and -- for all his proficient-academic smarts -- he's down-to-earth about and even amused by how the real world works. (Bless him, he has no apparent political agenda.) And, unlike some profs, Harl seems to have no trouble with the idea that his listeners are grownups with busy lives. Instead, he seems to be thrilled that we're there, and that we're interested.

In the Teaching Company's lineup, Harl seems to be the go-to guy for the-stuff-in-between-the-usual-ancient-stuff. (It's a sign of how smart and decent the Teaching Company is that they have such a go-to guy on their team.) Harl doesn't do Egypt, Greece, or Rome at great length. Instead, he discusses all those other tribes and peoples. In addition to the series that I linked to above, he also presents the barbarians who duked it out with Rome, Byzantium, and the Vikings. Interesting topics! -- as well as ones that my college history profs skipped entirely.

A while back the bunch of us wondered if the teaching of history is getting too girly -- whether it has started to avoid wars and conquests. Harl's lecture series should please the boy-boys among us. It's about 90% boy-material -- a story mainly of kings, conquests, migrations, and empires. That's in fact my one small criticism of the series: Girly-man that I am, I could have used some breaks for human-interest stuff. How did these people live? What did they eat? What was day-to-day life like for them? (Long ago, I recommended Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger's "The Year 1000," a horizontal slice through British life at the end of the first millennium. It's a book that makes the living conditions of the time very vivid. Audio fans can rent the book here.)

It's a small criticism, though. For a few minutes, Harl had me feeling like I really got the ancient near east. That's quite an accomplishment. Now, if only I were young enough to have a brain capable of retaining new facts ...

If you're interested in further Teaching Company recommendations, you can find many such (from me as well as visitors) by typing "Teaching Company" into the Search box in the left-hand column of this blog.



posted by Michael at July 5, 2006


Harl is also my favorite of the Teaching Company lecturers so far (although Robert Greenberg for music is a close 2nd). I had no particular interest in the Vikings before, but I'll probably order that series now since Harl is the prof.

Posted by: CyndiF on July 5, 2006 12:13 PM

Greenberg's great, isn't he? And I like Allitt and Timothy Taylor a lot too. It's funny how much a good teacher can mean. Like you, I've wound up studying some topics that aren 'way outside my real interests, just because I knew the teacher would be good. I wonder what kind of effect that sort of thing has on people's educations ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 5, 2006 1:18 PM

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