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« Elsewhere | Main | DVD Journal: "Stranger Than Fiction" »

June 05, 2008

"Foundations of Western Civilization"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Thomas F.X. Noble's lecture series is a topnotch Teaching Company offering. It's a great intro to Western Civ -- the one you probably should have taken as a Freshman but skipped, or that you did take as a Freshman and that wasn't very good, or that was perfectly OK but that you didn't pay enough attention to.

Guiding the listener from pre-history to the 1600s, Noble delivers both the classical basics as well as a lot in the way of more open, searching, and complex material. His virtues as a presenter and summarizer are many. He's good at reminding us that people in, say, 1400 had no idea what their actions would lead to. He's modest about what's known, and about what can be known. He's informative about disputes and controversies.

He regularly reminds us that women were part of the Western Civ story, and he doesn't fall for the idea that history consists of nothing but Great Men and their battles -- though he doesn't forget about them either. And, though the material is crisp, focused, and well-rehearsed, his voice and mind are alive. He never drones; he's full of fervor, humor, and enthusiasm.

(A small technical note: I'm awestruck by the way Noble moves back and forth between the big picture and the closeup, and knows exactly when the audience needs such a shift.)

Two small misgivings. 1) I wish that Noble made more use of genetics and linguistics. 2) I'm always more curious than historians seem to be about how people paid their bills. But these are just minor quibbles. Noble's series is so good that it made me wonder why such a class should need to be delivered ever again. Can anyone do better? FWIW, my main idiot reaction was, "Wow, that medieval period was really interesting!"

You can buy Noble's series here, though I suggest waiting until The Teaching Company puts it on sale, when it'll cost about 1/3 its list price.

For more Teaching Company recommendations (from visitors as well as from me), type "Teaching Company" into the Search box in the left-hand column of this blog.



posted by Michael at June 5, 2008


A fine popular/general history of the West is formed by the series of books by Indro Montanelli. The Romans and Greeks are covered, as well as medieval Italy. Nothing radical or non-linear about his entertaining approach, but there's a casual irreverence that never spills over into impertinence or revisionism.

When his long, oft-risked life ended in 2001 he was busy handling the letters at Corriere della Sera, still loathing Communism but refusing to swallow Berlusconi's line.

Montanelli felt you didn't need a bunch of illusions to love this glorious edifice we call the West.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on June 5, 2008 9:08 PM

I wish Netflix would offer these.

Posted by: thehova on June 5, 2008 11:53 PM

On a side note, I'm a big fan of Eugene Weber's "The Western Tradition" series, which is free online here:

Posted by: thehova on June 5, 2008 11:55 PM

Re: "I wish Netflix would offer these."

-- These courses are available at many public libraries (on CD and/or DVD). I know they can be borrowed from King County, Washington and Marion County, Indiana's library systems. Go to your library's website and do a search for "Teaching Company" in CD or DVD format. If your library is like the two mentioned, you can place an item on hold online, arrange to have it sent to whatever local branch you want, and sign up to get an e-mail when it's ready for pick-up. All for the price of a library card. Well, and taxes.

Posted by: Tracy on June 6, 2008 9:15 AM

The prices of these series really aren't at all bad when they're on sale -- maybe 70 bucks for the one in my posting. That's a chunk of change, but when you consider that it's 48 lectures (a buck and a half per talk), and that it's better than what you'd get if you signed up for a class at your local college (for $500 or $1000), it's a bargain. Another possibility is splitting the cost with a friend. One of them listens to it, then gives it to the other. You'll never listen to it twice, so passing it along (and not doing any physical "owning") is no problem. Audiobooks are nice that way -- I'm never tempted to hold on to them after I've "read" them, unlike books, whch I tend to haord. I donate the Teaching Company series that I'm finished with to a public library.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 6, 2008 10:43 AM

I liked this course a lot. My only complaint is that Noble covers such a broad range of topics that he doesn't have time to go into a lot of depth in most of them.

I would also recommend every Teaching Company course by Prof. Rufus Fears, particularly "The Wisdom of History." Prof. Fears is an absolutely spellbinding lecturer.

Posted by: Jonathan on June 6, 2008 1:06 PM

You still can't go wrong with Lord Clark's "Civilisation" series...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 6, 2008 4:58 PM

You'll never listen to it twice...

Ironically enough, Michael, I recently listened to Noble's lecture on the Popes and the Papacy for the second time (a year or two after the first time). I won't do it with all of them, but Noble is worth it! Glad you gave him a try.

Posted by: Chris Floyd on June 6, 2008 11:08 PM

Thanks to a recommendation from Michael B, I've been listening to Teaching Company music prof Robert Greenberg's Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, also listened to the first 32 lectures from his Great Music series. I get 'em from the library, load 'em on iPod and listen to them while commuting. Excellent series!

Posted by: Julie Brook on June 7, 2008 6:34 PM

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