Sophists Remediated

The above advertisement is scanned from a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine. “The Teaching Company” sells a variety of courses, mostly in the humanities but also in science and mathematics. The format is basically: the company hires a professor of relative prestige to record video lectures, which it sells through both its website and print ads like the above.

It is possible to make cynical quips about the cheap reproducibility of expertise or the transparent commercialization of education, or even to become defensive about the relevance and relative merit of actually going to a class and interacting with a “live” professor. It is also possible to remain sympathetic to all three of those claims and still see the chance to sit in on a 24-lecture course at Northwestern for $70 as a pretty good deal.

In any case, the sales pitch belongs in Plato’s “Gorgias”:

“This course teaches how to reason and how to persuade others that what you think is right.”

“…the ideal of deductive reasoning… is rarely used in real argument largely because it is useless.”

“Arguments fall into a handful of distinct categories–and the same issues are at stake each time one of these distinctive patterns occurs.”

The content (judging by the lecture titles) seems to approximate that of an upper-division undergrad course. (E.g., the Argument course is not especially exciting to people doing grad work in rhetoric, but is probably new and interesting to anyone not specialized in the subject.) As a model of public, rather than institutionalized, learning, these videos seem to be ideal for “someone who has been out of college at least 10 years” or has “reached a time in their life where they might have a better perception and understanding of the material [than a typical college student].” (Mathews, Bales).

The videos simulate a “traditional” lecture, centered on the expert, rather than a “student-centric” discussion. The former seems to be fading from popularity within universities–at least in the humanities, which is where the bulk of The Teaching Company’s courses are concentrated. The video lectures, however, represent an increase in the popularity of the lecture as a form over the same period that it has declined at universities. It is possible that this is a technological preference rather than a consumer preference, and that if it were possible to replicate a discussion-based class in customers’ living rooms for $69.99, customer’s may prefer such. However, it is also possible that the success of the video-lectures TTC sells is evidence of a consumer demand that is not being met by universities. There seems to exist a market, like Gorgias’s audience, that just wants to listen to a really knowledgeable person explain what he knows.

So is The Teaching Company really competing with anyone, as a business, or is it simply filling a gap in the structure of education? Maybe some of its customers would otherwise be enrolling in community colleges or auditing undergrad courses at the prestigious schools TTC draws professors from, but that population wouldn’t seem to account for the substantial growth the company has enjoyed (judging by the quantity and variety of courses offered) since its inception in 1990.

Curiously, the company’s founder, Thomas Rollins, originally wanted the videos to be available to the public (presumably for free) as part of a government program he designed while serving as the Chief Counsel of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. His proposed program failed because “several states forbid federal intervention in education to develop the concept of home education” (Bales).

Irony notwithstanding, The Teaching Company’s commercial success demonstrates the viability of the public lecture in the 21st century: Gorgias remediated for a contemporary audience.


Bales, Kate. “Ivy League Courses for Price of a Video”

Mathews, Linda. “Adult Education; No Tests and You Can Hit Rewind”

Nordin, Kendra. “From the College Lecture Hall to Your Headphones.”

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One Response to Sophists Remediated

  1. Dave says:

    I would like to contact the writer of this article- rmw733- directly. How can I do that?

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