City Journal

Heather Mac Donald
Great Courses, Great Profits
A teaching company gives the public what the academy no longer supplies: a curriculum in the monuments of human thought.
Summer 2011
The Great Courses explores the Western cultural tradition, as embodied in the painting of Rembrandt.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY
The Great Courses explores the Western cultural tradition, as embodied in the painting of Rembrandt.

The canon of great literature, philosophy, and art is thriving—in the marketplace, if not on college campuses. For the last 20 years, a company called the Great Courses has been selling recorded lectures in the humanities and sciences to an adult audience eager to brush up its Shakespeare and its quantum mechanics. The company produces only what its market research shows that customers want. And that, it turns out, is a curriculum in the monuments of human thought, taught without the politically correct superiority and self-indulgent theory common in today’s colleges.

To open a Great Courses catalog is to experience an intellectual seduction. “When was the last time you read the classics of American literature?” teases one course description. “Possibly not as recently as you’d like. These carefully crafted lectures are your royal road to recapturing the American experience—and our intellectual and cultural heritage.” A course on Plato’s Dialogues—“for millennia the objects of devoted study by the noblest minds”—invites you to “become engrossed in the ‘romance of the intellect.’ ” The company uses words to describe learning—such as “joy,” “beauty,” “pleasure,” “classic,” and its favorite, “greatness”—that have long disappeared from the academy’s discourse. “As you read or reread these masterpieces, you will likely experience such joy from great reading that you may wonder why you have spent so much time on contemporary books,” asserts one course description, committing several transgressions against the reigning post-poststructuralist orthodoxy.

And the company offers a treasure trove of traditional academic content that undergraduates paying $50,000 a year may find nowhere on their Club Med–like campuses. This past academic year, for example, a Bowdoin College student interested in American history courses could have taken “Black Women in Atlantic New Orleans,” “Women in American History, 1600–1900,” or “Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl: Gender and the Suburbs,” but if he wanted a course in American political history, the colonial and revolutionary periods, or the Civil War, he would have been out of luck. A Great Courses customer, by contrast, can choose from a cornucopia of American history not yet divvied up into the fiefdoms of race, gender, and sexual orientation, with multiple offerings in the American Revolution, the constitutional period, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, and the intellectual influences on the country’s founding. There are lessons here for the academy, if it will only pay them heed.

The Great Courses, originally called the Teaching Company, wasn’t begun with the goal of creating an antidote to today’s politicized academy. Tom Rollins, chief counsel and chief of staff to Senator Ted Kennedy’s Labor and Human Services Committee, quit his post in 1989 with the idea of finding the most charismatic college professors and having them tape college-level courses for the adult-education market.

Rollins, then 33, soon discovered that his assumptions about the university—that it existed, in his words, “to transmit to the young everything the civilization has figured out so far and to discover new things”—were not shared by everyone in the academy. “My first baptism came quickly,” he says. One of his earliest hires was Rick Roderick, a philosophy professor at Duke University, whom Rollins describes as to the left of Karl Marx. Nothing disqualifying there, so long as a professor injects his political views into a course only if relevant. Roderick had already recorded two popular courses for the company and was in the middle of his third when he let fly the observation that we shouldn’t bother to listen to anyone—Ronald Reagan came immediately to mind, he said—who scored too low on the “DQ index.” (That would be the “Dan Quayle index,” after the purportedly stupid vice president.) Roderick went on to speculate on tape that the only reason Nancy Reagan had ever had power was that she “gave the best head in Hollywood.” At this point, Rollins, who had considerable capital resting on the success of Roderick’s course, intervened: “Rick, I’m deleting this material.” Roderick coolly replied: “Tom, truth is a defense to libel.” Ultimately, the index stayed in; Nancy Reagan’s alleged source of power was out.

An American literature course by two theory-drenched Ivy League professors provided another early learning experience. The professors made little effort to conceal their contempt for the presumed racism and sexism of their audience and of the authors they were discussing. Within a month of the course’s release, customers were calling the company to complain about the lecturers’ condescending tone. In an institution that would live or die according to its customers’ satisfaction, Rollins couldn’t afford to alienate his audience. He destroyed all the master tapes of the course, so that no further copies could ship out, even accidentally. “Teaching shouldn’t be an opportunity for a professor to get off his chest burning issues that no one would listen to except students,” Rollins says, sadder but wiser now about the academy. “People want to know what the field has discovered; they aren’t interested in your personal views.”

Some of the early surprises involved the camera’s power to terrify even seasoned lecturers. By 1992, Rollins was living in an attic, after burning through his retirement savings to invest in his company. Maxed out on his credit cards and having sold 12 of his 13 Washington power suits, he had bet everything he had left on a history of Western philosophy course, for which his customer polling indicated a huge demand. A $10,000-a-day film crew had set up in the basement of the Georgetown University School of Medicine, ready to tape the course’s Machiavelli lecture—but the Columbia University professor who was supposed to deliver it was nowhere to be found. Rollins assumed that he was having a last smoke in the stairwell; instead, he found him there curled into a fetal position. “If I have to leave this stairwell, I will either throw up or faint,” vowed the professor, a large, strapping fellow. “I need Machiavelli in 30 seconds!” Rollins called out. Michael Sugrue, one of the two other lecturers in the course and a historian of colonial America, volunteered. He gave a superb talk, and the series became one of the company’s biggest sellers. Another professor in a different course actually did throw up before the taping—but then gave an excellent presentation on Greek civilization.

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.”

The Great Courses is by no means a theory-free zone; it even offers a course in canon formation. The title of another course, “Representing Justice: Stories of Law and Literature,” uses the mannered gerundial construction so beloved of theory-besotted academics—not surprising in a course built on the briefly trendy idea that law is a form of literature. But the incursions of identity studies and other post-sixties academic developments remain minimal—and are inevitably denounced by some customers on the company’s website. Overwhelmingly, the professors act as handmaidens to their subjects, laying out their material clearly and objectively, rather than avenging 4,000 years of injustice by unmasking the power relations supposedly hidden in a hapless text. Whitman College classics professor Elizabeth Vandiver notes in a course on Homer’s Iliad that ancient Greek culture was patriarchal, unlike the modern era. Seth Lerer, a literature professor at the University of California at San Diego, does not chastise Milton for sexism in the famous description of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost:

For contemplation he and valour form’d,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace,
He for God only, she for God in him.

If the Great Courses were a college, its students would graduate with a panoramic view of human accomplishment and the natural world. Their knowledge of the past would be bolstered with courses in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and Egypt; the early, high, and late Middle Ages; the Renaissance and the Reformation; Chinese, Russian, and African history; and modern European history, including the Enlightenment, Victorian England, and World Wars I and II. In science and mathematics, they could study cosmology, algebra, calculus, differential equations, quantum mechanics, chemistry, chaos theory, basic biology, probability, the history of mathematics, the great ideas of classical physics, and the science of consciousness. To understand how mankind has thought about human life, they could plunge into Aristotle’s Ethics, Plato’s Republic, medieval philosophy, Eastern philosophy, Nietzsche, Tocqueville, Voltaire, the philosophical underpinnings of capitalism, and modern philosophy since Descartes. In literature, they could read the Greek tragedies, Homer, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Shakespeare, the English Romantic poets, Mark Twain, the English novel, and masterpieces of Russian literature. Their appreciation of beauty could be enhanced by studying the Dutch masters, cathedral architecture, Michelangelo, Mozart’s operas and chamber works, northern and Italian Renaissance art, Wagner’s operas, the lives and times of Stravinsky and Shostakovich, and Beethoven’s piano sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets.

True, the Great Courses emphasizes breadth over depth and offers largely introductory material. In literature and intellectual history, the survey format predominates, with relatively few courses on individual writers or philosophical schools. The company planned a series dedicated to single authors but changed its mind after its Chaucer and Milton series didn’t sell as well as expected. “People don’t want to spend six hours on a single author,” Rollins says. (What about Dickens or Trollope? I ask. “You should have seen their polling numbers,” Rollins responds.) The company offers little genre or period specialization, and there is insufficient close reading of literary and philosophical language. But there is also none of the specious specialization of such courses as Wesleyan’s “Circulating Bodies: Commodities, Prostitutes, and Slaves in Eighteenth-Century England,” which “explores the period’s circulating bodies as they were passed from hand to hand, valued and revalued, used, abused, and discarded,” or Bowdoin’s “Renaissance Sexualities,” which “reimagines the canon of Renaissance literature from the perspective of desires that have not yet been named, [and] explores homoeroticism, sodomy, and heteronormativity . . . with special attention to the politics and poetics of same-sex desire and the erotics of theatrical performance by boy actors.”

In the past, the company used polling to determine not only which courses to offer, but even the individual lecture topics within each course. Seth Lerer was told to omit Old English from what would become his extremely popular lectures on the history of the English language because only 10 percent of likely buyers wanted it. Lerer insisted on including it anyway. “The company was good at understanding its audience but at the time not good at understanding what college professors were like,” he says. “Professors generate content and teach it because they think something should be taught, not because it meets a market.” (This lofty conception of academic freedom and intellectual responsibility sounds admirable in theory; in current practice, the results are less impressive.) Ultimately, however, the company agreed with Lerer and a substantial fraction of its audience that there were commonsense limits to the consumer model of education. “We don’t know what should be in each course,” the polled customers told the company, according to Rollins, “and neither do our fellow customers!”

Beyond the promise of knowledge, the Great Courses markets itself by invoking the Eros of the great teacher. It claims to have identified the very best of the country’s more than half-million college professors. Company recruiters sit in on classes of professors who have won awards or been recognized for their teaching; the most promising are invited to the Great Courses headquarters to record an audition lecture. That recording then goes to the company’s most valued customers. If enough of them like it, the company asks the professor to create a lecture course.

In the company’s “heroic” early period, as insiders call it, professors, once chosen, received carte blanche in crafting their courses. Now, however, the company closely involves itself in the creation of each course to make sure that it isn’t being sold “five pounds of manure in a ten-pound bag,” as Rollins puts it. Professors must submit a detailed outline of each lecture according to strict deadlines before taping begins. Company employees work with each professor to make sure that courses are logically coherent in parts as well as the whole. Each lecture must be 30 minutes long: no ignoring the clock or deferring material to the next week, as on a college campus. Such a quality-control regime contrasts sharply with the academy and has led some professors who recorded in the freewheeling “heroic” era to part ways amicably with the company. The amount of work required to create a course is fully equivalent to writing a book, says City Journal contributing editor and author John McWhorter, whose linguistics lectures are among the company’s most popular.

In its emphasis on teaching, the company differs radically from the academic world, where “teaching is routinely stigmatized as a lower-order pursuit, and the ‘real’ academic work is research,” notes Allen Guelzo, an American history professor at Gettysburg College. Though colleges ritually berate themselves for not putting a high enough premium on teaching, they inevitably ignore that skill in awarding tenure or extra pay. As for reaching an audience beyond the hallowed walls of academe, perhaps a regular NPR gig would gain notice in the faculty lounge, but not a Great Courses series. Jeremy McInerney, a University of Pennsylvania history professor, told The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1998 that he wouldn’t have taped “Ancient Greek Civilization” for the company if his tenure vote had been in doubt: “This doesn’t win you any further respect. If anything, there’s a danger of people looking down on it, since many people are suspicious of anything that reeks of popularism.” So much for the academy’s supposed stance against elitism.

Do the Great Courses’ professors live up to their billing? Not always. A few ramble in their presentations or oversimplify (even sugarcoat) their material—making Nietzsche, for example, sound almost like a self-help guru. But most of the professors are solid to very good, with the best exhibiting an infectious enthusiasm for their subject matter, whether expressed through the debonair showmanship of an Allen Guelzo or the ingenuous directness of his colleague on the company’s superb American history survey, Emory professor Patrick Allitt.

The Great Courses’ highest-selling lecturer—music professor Robert Greenberg—unquestionably deserves his devoted following. Greenberg’s patent love for the music of the past is utterly endearing. During one course, he implores: “My friends, if it wasn’t an unseemly thing to do, I would go down on my knees and beg all of you to go out and get a recording of [Robert Schumann’s] magnificent piano quintet. You will never regret it.” Recounting how Johannes Brahms destroyed his first 20 string quartets, Greenberg says mournfully: “We rightly ask: ‘J.B., J.B., did you have to?’ ” Greenberg’s blue-collar New Jersey persona (“I grew up in Levittown,” he explains; “if you spoke hoity-toity, you got the shit kicked out of you”) might put off some super-serious listeners—to their loss, since his composer biographies are superb, vividly drawn portraits of quixotic geniuses and their cultural environment. “When Brahms started his first concert tour in 1853,” Greenberg narrates, “the not-quite-20-year-old was an insignificant bit of blond lint from a bad neighborhood who played some piano and wrote some music. Seven months later, he would be hailed as the heir to Beethoven.” The only flaw in Greenberg’s courses is the frequent mediocrity of the anonymous performances that he uses to illustrate them, the result of strict copyright rules on recordings, which have also limited the composers he can cover.

Predictably, the Great Courses has come under pressure for not having enough “diversity” in its teaching ranks. Rollins has received angry letters from women complaining about the paucity of female lecturers; his nonstop efforts to recruit them have yielded few results, in part because women lecture less than men. As for the truly big-name female professors, they command speaking fees so high that the Great Courses’ pay scale looks insignificant. The same applies to the black superstars, one of whom told Rollins: “Tom, honestly, I make several thousand dollars a night from Martin Luther King Day through Black History Month; you’re not even on my radar screen.” (A Great Courses lecturer earns a royalty that varies according to how highly viewers rate his performance; the base royalty is 4 percent of the course’s gross revenue, but that rate can rise to 6 percent if a course receives high enough evaluations. The average royalty is about $25,000 a year for a course.)

The very fact that the Great Courses has found professors who teach without self-indulgence may suggest that academia is in better shape than is sometimes supposed. But the firm’s 200-plus faculty make up a minute percentage of the country’s college teaching corps. And some Great Courses lecturers feel so marginalized on their own campuses, claims Guelzo, that “if the company granted tenure, they would scramble to abandon their current ships and sleep on couches to work for the firm.” Further, it isn’t clear that the Great Courses professors teach the same way back on their home campuses. A professor who teaches the Civil War as the “greatest slave uprising in history” to his undergraduates because that is what is expected of him, says University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Kors, will know perfectly well how to teach a more intellectually honest course for paying adults.

Unfortunately, even some Great Courses faculty demonstrate the narrowing of the academic mind. I contacted another Penn history professor to interview him about his experiences with the company. After a positive initial response to my request, he suddenly announced that he wouldn’t speak with me. “I ought to have looked up the Manhattan Institute [City Journal’s publisher] before I replied to your first e-mail,” he wrote. “I cannot in good conscience contribute in any way to any project associated with an institution which rejects everything I believe. It says something about the undeclared civil war in U.S. life that I have to say that to you.”

While the Great Courses, then, is only an ambiguous marker of the academic scene, the meaning of the audience’s response is far clearer: there is a fervent demand in the real world for knowledge about history and the high points of human creation. Public libraries have formed discussion groups around the most popular courses. Customers accost Great Courses professors in airports as though they were celebrities. Alan Kors has received fan letters from forest rangers and from prison convicts. By contrast, “students never thank you; college is simply what they do next,” says Patrick Allitt.

The company releases no information about its buyers, but professors say that they have been told to think of their audience as just as educated as they are, but in a different field. The customers must be well-off enough to pay what can be a hefty sum for the courses; a typical 24-lecture course costs $255 on DVD, and Greenberg’s 32-lecture course on Verdi runs $520, though patient customers wait for sales to snap up courses for around $70. A few professors suggest that the company has pegged the audience as leaning conservative. Seth Lerer claims that the firm told him in the 1990s that some of its clientele would be uncomfortable with his including Black English in his “History of the English Language” course. “They were very conscious of their political demographic,” he says. Lerer got an angry e-mail from a customer asking how he could include that “leftist son of a bitch” Noam Chomsky in the course. John McWhorter was told to omit from his linguistics lectures his usual argument that the idea of grammatical “correctness” is an “arbitrary imposition.” Such caveats on the company’s part, however, could simply reflect the desire to avoid alienating any customers.

Some popular professors make more money from their Great Courses royalties and the resulting speaking engagements than from their academic salaries. Greenberg’s “Understanding the Fundamentals of Music” sells 20,000 units a year, according to Forbes; Lerer says that his “History of the English Language,” which the company has told him is a high-mid-range seller, has sold tens of thousands of units over a dozen years. All in all, the firm has sold more than 9 million courses since 1990.

Brentwood Associates, a private-equity firm, acquired a majority stake of the Great Courses in 2006, spotting a thriving company with huge growth potential. “The foundation that Rollins created was unlike anything we’d seen,” says Brentwood’s Eric Reiter. “He was a brilliant entrepreneur, building the company brick by brick through rigorous testing.” Profits have doubled since 2006, thanks to major investments in advertising—visible to anyone who reads the New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, or Science News or who is on the receiving end of some of the 50 million catalogs that the company sent out last year. “Few businesses have such a passionate customer base,” says Reiter. “Nine out of ten people on the street have never heard of it, but nine of out ten, upon learning about the product, want it.”

Forbes reports the company’s annual sales as $110 million. The firm recently opened a high-tech headquarters in Virginia for its 200 employees and is beefing up the visual learning aids on its DVDs—a sorely needed correction. But the Great Courses confronts a major challenge as it tries to expand its course offerings: “finding great lecturers, a talent that seems to be increasingly rare these days,” says Lucinda Robb, the company’s director of professor development. In fact, the company has been recycling its most popular professors on topics increasingly remote from their official competencies. It is also diversifying into nonacademic realms, such as wine appreciation and personal health. The growing reach of free online university courses might seem to pose a competitive challenge, but for now, the Great Courses adds enough value to its lecturers to justify the product’s sticker price.

The biggest question raised by the Great Courses’ success is: Does the curriculum on campuses look so different because undergraduates, unlike adults, actually demand postcolonial studies rather than the Lincoln-Douglas debates? Every indication suggests that the answer is no. “If you say to kids, ‘We’re doing the regendering of medieval Europe,’ they’ll say, ‘No, let’s do medieval kings and queens,’ ” asserts Allitt. “Most kids want classes on the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, World War I, and the American Civil War.” Creative writing is such a popular concentration within the English major, Lerer argues, because it is the one place where students encounter attention to character and plot and can non-ironically celebrate literature’s power.

But the educational market works very differently inside the academy and outside it, and the consumers of university education are largely to blame. Almost no one comparison-shops for colleges based on curricula. Parents and children select the school that will deliver the most prestigious credentials and social connections. Presumably, some of those parents are Great Courses customers themselves—discerning buyers regarding their own continuing education, but passive check writers when it comes to their children’s. Employers, too, ignore universities’ curricula when they decide where to send recruiters, focusing only on the degree of IQ-sorting that each college exercises sub rosa.

Universities are certainly doing very well for themselves, despite ignoring their students’ latent demand for traditional learning. But they would better fulfill their mission if they took note of the Great Courses’ wild success in teaching the classics. “I wasn’t trying to fix something that was broken in starting the company,” Rollins says. “I was just trying to create something beautiful.” Colleges should replicate that impulse.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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