The Great Courses Plus: Intellectual Crack for Information Junkies

man watching TV with snacks

Hi, I'm Charlie, and I'm a junkie.

Oh, it's not narcotics, nor liquor, and I'm not even a sex addict. What I am is an information junkie.

It started when I was very young: I would "read" my father's collection of Scientific American -- really most of the time I was looking at the pictures and reading the captions -- and my mother insisted until the day she died that my first complete sentence was "Mother, what is a deciduous tree?" (Not that I believe her -- I distinctly remember asking this and it was in the kitchen of our second house, so I had to have been at least six.)

It only got worse as I got older. A lot of my friends were college professors -- they gave me textbooks they got from publishers. Another family friend had just qualified for atomic submarines, and he gave me all his (unclassified) texts from his electronics courses. Then I discovered libraries, and then bookstores ... and the rest was history. And science. And math. And art.

Other than going cold turkey a couple of times on vacation, I've never really broken the habit, but the Internet makes it a lot easier to find suppliers. And recently, thanks to my Roku box and the wonders of the network, I've got a new supplier: The Great Courses Plus.

A lot of you may be familiar with "Great Courses," a series sold through The Teaching Company. These courses are college-level, sold on DVD and now digital download. They appear to cost between $50 and $80 list, but they have lots of discounts. I'd never bought one because, well, that's $80 and I didn't know whether I'd like them.

Then came The Great Courses Plus: All you can eat -- although it doesn't include every Great Courses course, it has most of them, and new courses are added about a month after they're first published on the a la carte site. Great Courses Plus costs $19.99 a month or $179.99 a year, which is $14.99 a month. They have a one-month free trial, too.

So I signed up, and now I'm hooked. The courses are all "college level" but I have to say some of them, particularly some of the science ones, are at the college level of those "rocks for jocks" classes meant to fulfill the one science credit for a PE major. But most of them aren't.

So far, after a few months, here are some of my favorites that I've completed:

  • King Arthur
  • The Black Death
  • Understanding Japan. This one surprised me: I've been a Japan nut since I was about five, but my historical interest tapered off sometime during the Tokugawa shogunate. This course had a section on the Meiji Restoration, which turns out to be fascinating. Japan went from a medieval feudalism to a major power that defeated the Russian Navy in a span of 30 years.
  • The Analects of Confucius. I really only started reading Confucius a couple of years ago; this course introduced me to a lot of the history around the Analects that I'd not seen and clarified a good bit.

Some others that I'm happily going through:

  • A collection of courses on early Christian history -- Gnosticism, the Apocrypha and lots of other apocryphal works, the Nag Hammadi manuscript and the Dead Sea Scrolls (with included snark about Dan Brown's fiction), and I've got one on the historical Jesus queued up in my watchlist.
  • Latin 101 and Greek 101. Yes, other writers have gotten by with "little Latin and less Greek" but I've always wanted to study them.
  • Courses on differential equations and thermodynamics -- since my undergrad background was Philosophy, I missed some of that stuff and had to pick it up on the street.

That's hardly a complete list -- I have something like 130 courses in my watch list -- but it's enough to give you an idea.

There are a few holes in the course coverage: they only have one course on Chinese history, and that one course concentrates on the last 150 or so years. But they have several terrific ones on the history of India. I'd love a Sanskrit course, but I can see the audience for that might be limited.

You can access GCP in several ways: over the Web, or through a bunch of streaming devices. I do mine mostly through a Roku box.

The Roku application isn't flawless. The navigation is clumsy: You have to navigate all the way into a lecture to add a course to your watch list, and moving around can take a lot of clicks on the Roku remote. Some of that, though, is just the limits of the Roku remote itself; if you don't have many buttons, you have to have deep menus. More annoying, but not catastrophic, is that some lectures seem to have bad bits -- you'll be watching a lecture and it will suddenly bounce back to the menu. You can resume the lecture and it will go on for a while, then do it again. But that's only been in a few lectures, so it's an annoyance instead of a major problem.

Even with those flaws, I end up watching a Great Course nearly every night. I'm probably getting more pleasure out of that $180 than anything I've bought all year.