Review of "Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition" video series

Fritz Hinrichs

The video series “Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition” brings to your living room the opportunity to sit at the feet of some of America’s finest Ivy League professors as they lecture on the books that form the corpus of the Western literary tradition. If you have ever thought that sending your child to an Ivy league college would be a dream come true but were mortified by the current tuition, this set of remarkable videos might just be the opportunity for which you always hoped. The set contains eighty 45-minute lectures and can be purchased from The Teaching Company (1-800-832-2412) for $500 on video and for $350 on cassette with discount for first time buyers. The per hour price of the lecture time in this series ($6.67/hour on video) compares almost comically with the price of actually going to an Ivy League College and sitting in on the lectures in person (over $60/hour at most of the Ivy league colleges). This set contains lectures on half of the “Great Books” as The Teaching Company has put most of the lectures on the philosophically oriented books in the series “The Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition”. They also have a separate set on the plays of Shakespeare that appears quite promising as well as many other series that provide a wealth of educational opportunities.
The lectures in this series do not focus on such broad topics as “Greek literature” or “Literature in Venice” but each lecture focuses on a particular book and attempts to prepare the students for an intelligent reading of that text. This format works very well for you do not have to sit through lectures full of general and vague observations but are giving ready aid to set out on your own journeys in the delightful world of first-hand literary exploration.
The lecturers chosen for the “Great Authors” series are the best that one can expect from collegiate academia. The lectures are usually aimed at an audience that is only vaguely familiar with the texts, so much time is spent giving introductory explanations that are helpful to the first-time reader. The themes discussed are usually the stock themes that comprise the standard observations usually given when commenting on these texts. This is a delightful contrast to the trendy college professors who in their interest in staying abreast of the laquiz literary criticism burden their students with explanations of esoteric scholarly disputes that bear little relation to the core themes that make these texts fascinating reading. The professors chosen to lecture in this series also show themselves delightfully oblivious to the politically correct brow beatings served up in the laquiz dispatches from the Peruvian Women’s Studies Department. This video series may have done us the favor of preserving for posterity a remarkable sampling of education before multiculturalism. This series is excellent for those who would like to have an introduction to the books the comprise the “great conversation” that has wound itself down through the corridors of Western history.
Even though this series is not plagued by many of the ills that beset contemporary education, one should not be so naive as to think that they do not afford some very serious challenges to the fidelity of those wedded to the Biblical worldview. Before the advent of the dumbing down of our colleges resulting from the result of multiculturalism, most Christians going into the secular colleges understood that there was a serious intellectual challenge to the Christian faith that they would have to face if they were to remain intellectually vital in these institutions. The same challenge will face those who would glean from the teaching in these tapes. Even though it is far beyond the scope of this article to examine in detail the views put forward by each of the lecturers, I would like to give some general observations on the major ones.
S. Georgia Nugent (Princeton)- Nugent provides most of the lectures on the ancient Greek writers. In her light but engaging lecture style she is able to bring out the literary themes that are at the core of what makes the books a delight to read. Even thought she mentions an interest in feminist studies, this does not come out but in her necessary observations regarding the low place for and mistreatment of women in Greek society.
Michael Sugrue (Princeton)- Despite his nervous pacing and vivacious gesticulations, Sugrue’s content quickly draws one into the literary panoramas he lays out. He shows tremendous ability in expositing a book’s central themes, but he is a caricature of the hard-nosed skeptical intellectual out to champion the secularism found in writers such a Thucydides and Descartes. His heavy handed treatment of theological questions in his lecture on the book of Job make his lack of spiritual discernment painfully obvious. In his lecture on Pascal’s Pensees, he also shows a deep lack of understanding of Pascal’s Christian motivations; however, he does have a good number of helpful observations on the disagreements between Pascal and Descartes.
Arnold Weinstein (Brown)- Weinstein’s introductory lecture to the series is almost enough to set one against the rest of the tapes to come. Weinstein is a thoroughly modern man whose vague attempts to find a justification for the study of literature could almost be a casebook example for the unprincipled wide-eyed liberal attempting to pull moral phrases out of his own vacuous psyche. He shows a disconcerting ability to find Freudian metaphors throughout the literature he lectures on, no matter what the period. His lectures on modern literature show the fruits of what is obviously his expertise; however, his lectures on the earlier literature have a chaff to wheat ratio that is so high that they are often not worth the struggle of listening. One thing that can be said in his favor is that he is so boring to listen to that you need have little fear your children would pay him attention long enough to suffer the ill effects of his teaching.

If you are interested in finding something to put your student in front of while you do the laundry, these tapes will not prove the “child-safe” diversion that you might hope for; however, for those who are willing to take up the hard work of cultural discernment, these tapes offer a remarkable opportunity to acquiant oneself with the works the have shaped our culture’s intellectual history.

**Please note**
This series is only available in audio format now.