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Sunday, April 27, 2014

A truly superb use for your television.

My wife and I have an insane nightlife: after the kids are down, we frequently spend our time together watching DVDs from The Teaching Company's "Great Courses" catalogue. What is TTC? Basically, TTC offers a college-level lecture series in CD, download or DVD format on a variety of subjects. The lectures last 30 minutes each and range from six lectures to 48 for the more massive surveys. Depending on subject matter, some are offered only in video format (especially those involving the arts, visual sciences, math, and the like).

Yeah, we also have six children, so...

But anyhoo. Every year, about tax return time, we pick up a deeply discounted video set or two from TTC. Don't let the list price deter you--they are frequently offered at 70% off. Fair warning, though: once you buy from them, you are on their mailing list forever. "We want you back!" is a frequent missive--most hilariously sent right after a purchase. They're rather like Sports Illustrated that way--with the exception that TTC is worthwhile whereas SI no longer is.

We have just about finished Professor William Cook's 12 hour lecture series on The Cathedral.

It is magnificent. Prof. Cook's course surveys cathedrals from their beginning as re-purposed secular Roman basilicas up through the late "flamboyant" Gothic era, with a few modern gothic structures in the New World thrown in. Cook is able to pack a lot of information into a half hour, and he has a superb eye for detail. Also, he's a practicing Catholic and is able to deftly and correctly convey the theological significance of the art and architecture. There is considerable focus on France--immortal Chartres gets three lectures--which makes sense given that France was the birthplace of Gothic. But he is careful to visit other regions as well, and helps you to see church art and architecture in a new light.

If you have the opportunity, see it--it is well worth your time.

The crossing tower of the medieval gothic masterpiece 
that is Ely Cathedral, featured in the lecture series.


  1. Been a fan of The Teaching Company for years. We *did* manage to get off their mailing list by not buying anything for a few years and moving.

    That said, our kids are a big fan of Sister Wendy's shows and The Cheese Nun, a PBS profile of one of the cloistered Benedictine sisters at Abbey Regina Laudis in Connecticut.

    My wife and I don't get much TV time these days.

    I'll have to check out this presentation on the cathedrals.

  2. +1 for TTC from me as well. I'm currently right in the middle of Prof. Cook's Cathedral series - just started to look at Chartres.
    You may want to remind your readers that many TTC titles can be found for free at your local library. That's where I get many of the titles I've watched.
    You may also want to check out The Modern Scholar series (TMS) from audible books. It's the nearest thing to a competitor TTC has, though only in audio format. Allow me to recommend the lectures by Thomas Madden, a Catholic, Who has done several excellent series on Church history, inc. the Papacy, the Inquisition and the Crusades. Not in any way a whitewash, but a fair-minded, nuanced, historical perspective on events that are often clouded behind emotion and histrionics.
    One warning - the quality of TTC lecture series can vary dramatically. Their series on Thomas Aquinas, for instance, was dreadful. It was nothing less than an inoculation against taking Thomas' thought seriously. He was dismissed without argument by the lecturer. Old stuff, you know. No one takes that seriously these days. A better alternative is Peter Kreeft's series on Aquinas for TMS. He is open about his love for Thomas but also lays out the most serious criticisms and arguments against him.
    Sorry to go on so long. I love TTC and TMS. Please tell us which lectures you've seen, what you thought, and which you would recommend.

  3. Wolskerj, who was the prof on the Aquinas series? Cook, the same guy who does The Cathedral, has one on Augustine that I've thought about.
    --Dale's Other Half

  4. I really enjoyed two of David Roochnik's Teaching Company courses: Plato's Republic, and Introduction to Greek Philosophy. Highly recommended, and very listenable. He is not unfriendly to faith traditions. Unlike some lecturers.

    I wanted to read The Republic (for the first time) and used the Roochnik course to guide my reading, book by book.

    Which then set me up to read and profit from Thomas More's Utopia.

  5. I agree with the assessment of TTC's series on Aquinas. One of the first we bought and almost the last.

    Just elected to be a lot more picky in the future.

    I don't recall who did the Aquinas series.

    And, yes, many public libraries have quite a few TTC and TMS publications in their catalogs.

  6. wolskerj:

    I've seen the Churchill series and heard the last half of the Byzantium one on tape (yeah, that long ago). Both are very worthwhile. We have the one on Hubble which looks like it will be soon, but that's up to the Much Better Half.

  7. Cassette tapes. Yeah I remember those, too. :) The Aquinas series is out of print at TTC, but my library catalog says the lecturer is Jeremy Adams.
    I have listened to Prof. Cook's series on Augustine - the one he teamed up with another lecturer for. I though it was pretty good. I mean, I enjoyed it and thought I learned something. I'm not speaking as any sort of expert on Augustine or anything.
    I guess recorded courses have some of the same drawbacks as courses in college. Sometimes you just have to put up with the teacher. Prof. Greenbergs lectures on music are some of the best things TTC offers but once in a while he'll say something odd about the Church in the context of explaining a Mass setting or something. One of the weirdest asides was from Betsey Dexter Dyer on her otherwise excellent series on the "unseen world of bacteria." Not my usual thing, but one of the most enjoyable series of lectures I've ever listened to. Honest, I bought her book, my kids and I made a Winogradsky column like she suggested, but right in the middle of her lecture she suddenly goes off on a tangent, out of nowhere, wondering how van leewanhoek (sp?) and his microscope evaded the clutches of the evil Catholic Church because of it's hatred of science and you know, Galileo and all that. I seriously considered writing her a letter and telling her I loved your course but what the hell were you thinking?
    I'd still recommend that course. TTC Byzantium and some of Kenneth Harl's other courses look really good, I just haven't found the time to listen to them yet. They're held by my library, though, so someday . . . The course on Hubble looks like it would be fantastic to watch on DVD. Let us know your thoughts once you've seen it.