Great Courses, Great Profits

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Great courses can bring great profits, Heather Mac Donald notes — but only outside of academia:

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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.

John Derbyshire agrees that the courses are intellectual crack.


  1. Alrenous says:

    I get tired of people just assuming undergrads are irresponsible. If you strip them of all opportunities to learn responsibility, because you think they’re irresponsible, they’ll certainly end up that way, won’t they?

    Let’s find out instead, yeah?

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