What I learned this year from The Teaching Company’s Great Courses

I have a 22-40 minute morning commute to work, the longer time often due to absolutely no reason at all except … drivers.gettyimages-55743523_1472835076262_5913880_ver1-0

I used to listen to NPR, then classical music, but this past summer I started listening again to lectures from The Teaching Company. Quite a few of them, as it has turned out:

mindyourwordsProfessor John McWhorter’s The Story of Human Language was a re-listen. And it may well be again…it is that fascinating to me. The evolution, and devolution, of languages, complexities, well…if this course taught me anything, it is that Star Trek’s Universal Translator is as bunk as the transporter and warp speed. There are languages on this earth that take decades to learn fluently. No way Darmok is ever going to make sense without an equal many years. Actually, the course taught me a lot. Did you know that the languages of Madagascar bear absolutely no relation to that of any in Africa? A mere 250 miles at its nearest point away? Rather, Malagasy is a Malayo-Polynesian language, the nearest being in Sumatra, some 4,700 miles away!

memoryProf. Steve Joordens’s Memory and the Human Lifespan was also a re-listen. Apparently it didn’t stick? It did. Truth is, there is a lot of material and it deserves a couple run-throughs. Memory diseases, overcrowding, just the nature of the beast…much affects what we think we remember. But there are memory tools and training techniques to boost what we’ve got, and baring unfortunate genetics, ward off the inevitable decline of memory.

critical-thinking1In keeping with the cognitive course theme, I thought Dr. Steven Novella’s Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills was an excellent addition to the toolbox. And given 2016’s complete abandonment of reason, more necessary than ever before. An important takeaway, which may help me in a potential jury interview, is that all memory is fallible and, I knew this already,  eyewitness testimony can never be trusted (look up the famous study by Elizabeth Loftus…or watch her TED Talk here.) Our brain is wired to deceive us. We need to work against it. I’ll listen to this again.

marktwain_cc_img_0I had a copy of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 my sons gave me six years ago, but never got to it before I lost it to the fire. I also, at 55, had never read Tom Sawyer. So I listen to Prof. Stephen Railton tell me all about Mark Twain in The Life and Work of Mark Twain. Amazing man, Mr. Clemens, and amazing was the persona he crafted. I did read Tom Sawyer after this, and I would not have appreciated it without Dr. Railton’s insights. I don’t know if I’ll ever take the time for Huckleberry Finn, but I might get to that autobiography someday.

vikingshipI thought I knew something about the Vikings, but apparently not that much. Dr. Kenneth Harl, in The Vikings, taught me quite a bit about the far-ranging impact the Danish, Norse, and Swedes had on the European…well…western hemisphere. And he dispelled for some of the listeners, I’m sure, some of the cinematic falsehoods: horns, sleeveless fur, wanton rampage, that I already knew were myths. The Vikings were incredibly organized…and tough as any out there. More so in most cases. But they eventually went the way of…myth.

80d7c80d70454f0d237a89488d8b0d18I don’t remember how I stumbled across this one, maybe in an email or an ad, but I was primed for it. Professor Gary Wolfe surveys the earliest (a tad contentious, it seems, on the Facebook, as to his declaration of the “first”) science fiction through the golden age and pulp to modern science fiction in his lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works. I started on science fiction when I was around nine or ten with Scholastic editions of Lester del Rey, voraciously reading whatever was in our tiny town library, but sharing fiction reading time in my late teens with fantasy. I set science fiction aside in my late 20s, sporadically reading some new and rereading some favorites over the next 30 years. I picked it up again five years ago when I wanted to read the Big Three. I could write a whole blog post alone on this one course. For me, it was one of the best this year and I might listen to it again next year. Too many additions to the “To Read List”!

goddedss-lakshmi-gods-of-hinduism-33227435-900-721I’ve made study of religions a continuous education for 35 years and admit a big deficiency in my understanding of Hinduism, thus this Great World Religions – Hinduism offered by Prof. Mark Muesse. Unfortunately, the course left me with even more of a deficiency! It should be no surprise that a country with as rich and diverse cultures as India would have a religion equal to, and exceeding, that diversity and richness. A lifetime of study would barely crack the surface. Fascinating religion.

portrait_of_niccolo_machiavelli_by_santi_di_titoSurprising to some that Tom Sawyer revelation, I’ve never read The Prince, either. And I did not finish Machiavelli in Context. It wasn’t for a lack of enthusiasm on the part of Dr. William Cook…his lectures were quite energetic. I just couldn’t get into them…too limited a subject matter? Maybe not, but I suppose the knowledge of whether Machiavelli has any applicability in the 21st century will have to wait until I jump start this again. I was wondering if there were elements of Mr. Thinskin hidden in the short text of The Prince. I might still read it, but the lesson from Tom Sawyer tells me that I’d do better with annotations. Set aside for a future date…

buddhists-ceremonyWhat I learned from Great World Religions – Buddhism, was that I have as little use for Buddhism as the other major religions. My cursory understanding before this course was sorely limited…ignorantly cherry-picking the “good” stuff, it seems.  My mind cannot abide “nothingness”, and any attempt to get there. Nor do I think focusing on suffering is a good thing. And there are some extremely … fantastic (as in flights of)…elements to the beliefs that don’t align with a rational mind. Or a mind striving to be rational. I do like the iconography, though. Anyway, There is another, longer and more in depth course also by Prof. Malcolm Eckel (“Buddhism“) that covers the same things, but…in more depth. I think this might be a good course for many. And I think that despite my more than casual understanding of Christianity, I’m going to listen to the one on that, and Judaism and Islam.

In keeping with the fantasy theme, I recently started Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature’s Most Fantastic Works. What I’ve learned so far from Prof. Eric Rabkin is that I really had no idea how Freudian Grimms’ et al fairy tales were/are. I look forward to learning more about fantasy (and more science fiction) literature.

And I look forward to more lectures in 2017. Call me strange, but I don’t mind listening to someone not on the radio talk when I drive.

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One response to “What I learned this year from The Teaching Company’s Great Courses

  1. Pingback: Random thoughts to start a new year…Quantum Time, New Dark Ages, Beer Entropy, Movies in Comfort, Books, Fine Coffee, and more | Random (and not) Musings

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