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May 2024
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The Great Courses

How to stimulate your mind, impress your friends, and actually know why the year 1066 was such a big deal.

By John Cadley

“IllustrationIllustration by Bart Browne

I have a friend who’s almost as funny as I am. Almost. One of his best lines is, “I don’t know anything, and I can prove it.” It’s funny because he is, in fact, a very smart person who knows plenty. I, on the other hand, can—and often do—prove it. I had eight years of grammar school, four years of high school, four years of college, two years of graduate school, and all I can tell you is how to make a fake ID good enough to buy beer.

It’s embarrassing, and I’ve made up for it by cheating. Yes, I am an intellectual poseur, a charlatan, a mountebank, a quacksalver. Call me what you will. I had no choice. Standing like a coatrack while people around me kept referring to the Magna Carta or the Great Schism, I determined to get in on the action by hook or by crook. I chose crook. Recalling vaguely that the year 1066 had some significance, I looked it up and learned it was the year of the Battle of Hastings and the resulting Norman conquest of England, which was apparently a big deal. I would take this miniscule morsel of erudition to parties, wait for an opening, and casually interject, “And then, of course, there was 1066, which changed everything.” If someone asked exactly what changed, I would feign sudden chest pains and head for the door. Then I would go home and fall into paroxysms of guilt, lamenting all those lost years of education when so much knowledge passed, unimpeded, into and out of my ear canals like wind through a tunnel.

Why did I daydream, doodle, and write amorous sonnets to … to … (I forget her name). Why did I ridicule Mr. Rothstein when he was trying to teach me about allopatric speciation? Oh, the waste! The loss! The humanity!

I was in just such a state when a catalog arrived in the mail for something called The Great Courses, one company’s vast collection of video lectures on all the subjects I ignored in school, plus hundreds more, from The Peloponnesian War to Crochet: The Basics & Beyond. I felt like an illiterate goat herder who had been offered a card to the Library of Alexandria. Here was a chance to make it all up, to learn everything I had once so blithely ignored, including—could it be true!?—1066: The Year That Changed Everything. Now I could expound prodigiously on that fateful year without faking a myocardial infarction.

I felt like an illiterate goat herder who had been offered a card to the Library of Alexandria.

Which courses should I get? 1066, of course. Then a couple on the Greeks and Romans, with a little Plato to round out my classical chops. I could also order The Theory of Everything. That ought to cover a few bases. Then Law School for Everyone. I’m sure I wouldn’t get a license to practice, but at least now I’ll find out why my lawyer charges 250 for a 15-minute phone call. One course I won’t take is How the Stock Market Works. I know how the stock market works. You invest in a company, the CEO is indicted for fraud, and you have to explain to your children why they’re not going to Disney World. Nor will I order Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Children. That ship has sailed. My children are grown and as long as there are no felony convictions, that’s healthy enough for me.

On the other hand, Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life is intriguing. Where else can you find out the purpose of human existence—and on sale, no less—for 49.95? How to Read and Understand Shakespeare looks like another good bet. I studied the Bard in college but got things mixed up. I thought Hamlet killed Caesar, Romeo married Cleopatra, and Macbeth was the guy who tamed the shrew (I was close; he married one).

Let’s see—history, philosophy, Shakespeare, law school … maybe just one more to round out my curriculum. Introduction to Infectious Diseases? No thanks, we’ve already been introduced. Skepticism 101? I could teach that course. Machiavelli in Context? I’m afraid it might remind me of my ex-wife’s attorney. Ah! Here’s one—The Psychology of Performance: How to Be Your Best in Life. That’s for me. I’ve always wanted to fulfill my potential, achieve my goals, distinguish myself, and generally feel superior to everyone else. In fact, for that one I’ll even pay the shipping for next-day delivery.

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