August 26, 2013

Brain Food: The Great Courses Are Great Fun

One of the ways I keep my satisfying retirement interesting is to look for ways to keep my mind active. Besides research that indicates an active mind is less likely to suffer dementia, it is just plain fun to learn something new.

I like to study a subject I don't know a lot about. And, one of the best ways for me to do that is to use the materials offered through The Great Courses. Offered in audio format (either CD or download) or as a DVD (video or download), the company behind these courses have literally hundreds to choose from in virtually every subject imaginable.

Usually, they are priced at a ridiculously high amount. No one I know is going to pay almost $400 for a stack of CDS. Recently, though, the company has apparently realized that they can sell these courses for a substantial discount and move more of the product off the shelf. Now, they have my interest, and my money.

To date I have purchased five courses. I have been extremely pleased with four of them. The fifth turned out to be too detailed for my purposes, though I still learned a lot and it opened another door for me. I thought you might find it interesting to see what I have paid my precious retirement dollars for.


How to Listen to and Understand and Great Music. Taught by Robert Greenberg, this is a fascinating look at the history and structure of music since plain chant all the way to 20th century jazz and symphonies. In addition to being remarkably well versed in the subject,  Mr. Greenberg is also a character. His lectures are anything but dull. The 48 lectures of this course seemed to fly by.

More than just a sampling of famous musical pieces for the past 1,000 years, this course puts everything into an historical context to explain why music of a certain era sounds the way it does. As Professor Greenberg notes in his introduction, "Western music has always been a mirror of the social, political, and religious events and aesthetic ideals of its time."  Grade = A+


Turning Points in Modern History. This course tracks key social, political, and scientific events from 1433 to the rise of social media. The 24 events that each rate a lecture are chosen because they "sparked profound changes in how humans viewed the world."  Professor Vejas Liulevicius presents the material in an easy-to-understand style. Though nothing like Robert Greenberg, Vejas injects enough humor and energy into his presentation to make things interesting.

Many of the turning points are obvious, like the invention of the printing press, the French Revolution, Kitty Hawk, and the Atomic Bomb. Even so, the lectures gave me an insight into the wider effect each had in the world. Less familiar, were segments on the Chinese Opium War, The Russo Japanese War, or the Treaty of Westphalia. Each spurred me to dig deeper by finding library books that dealt with each.  Grade = A

The Symphonies of Beethoven. After thoroughly enjoying Robert Greenberg's course on Great Music I bought this one to learn more about Beethoven. I had always thought of Mozart as the composer I'd want to know the most about. But, instead I discovered Beethoven was a tremendously exciting composer and one I wanted to explore more deeply.

Unfortunately, this course disappointed me, but not through any flaw in the lectures. It was simply too detailed. This course makes more sense for someone who is a serious music student or studying for a degree at a university. I was overwhelmed by the depth of the analysis of every movement of all nine Beethoven symphonies through the 32 lectures.

There was a very positive outcome, however. I did discover I really enjoyed Beethoven's music. So, I purchased a complete package of all 9 of his symphonies, directed by Leonard Bernstein. Beethoven's music is powerful and complex. Even though Professor's Greenberg's course was way too "deep" for me, he did open my eyes to an amazing musician. Grade = B-


Francis of Assisi. This is a course I just started before we left for our Oregon vacation so I don't have a real feel for it yet. But, the first few lectures have whet my appetite for more. What I know about St. Francis of Assisi is what most people know: a man who wandered around Italy hundreds of years ago, talking about humility and poverty.

The first several lectures basically have set the stage by describing the world at the time of Francis's life and what lasting impact his message has had on the world. When I return home I am looking forward to sections on his messages of  compassion, simplicity, and poverty. Like all of the courses I have purchased so far, I am sure the lectures will include solid information on how the views and life of Francis continue to impact people today. Grade = B+ (tentative grade)


The Everyday Guide to Wines of Southern California (DVD). This is the only course I have bought that is a DVD rather than a CD. But, for something  about wines I figured seeing the wine bottles and vineyards would make sense. While Betty and I are not wine experts by any stretch of the imagination, this course sounded fun prior to our October trip to one of the wine areas in California.

Master of Wine, Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan is attractive with a friendly style. If we are serious about getting the most out of this course we will have to adjust our food budget a bit to accommodate several bottles of more expensive wine than we normally consume. But, if that's the cost of our education.....oh well.
Grade = B  (tentative grade since just started)


Lifelong learning is something I have made a part of my satisfying retirement lifestyle. It keeps my mind fresh and teaches me, almost daily, that what I know is far outweighed by what I don't.


Note: unfortunately, I am not receiving any compensation from the folks who produce the Great Courses. I just happen to be a satisfied customer.

26 comments:

  1. Staying interested keeps you interesting. This is one of my life mantras and you are a living example of how that looks when it jumps off the page!

    Trying New Things and continuous learning are part of staying interested in the world and keeping your brain healthy and relevant.

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    1. I do get bored rather easily so something like these courses is right up my alley. I have signed up to be notified when a few courses are given through Coursera that look interesting, too.

      Everyone can find some way to keep those brain cells buzzing.

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  2. We should start up a club and trade DVDs. Mike and I have purchased at least 10 Great Courses series over the years. We actually have the complete wine series course, which includes wines from around the world, and are planning to go through it with friends to share the cost of the various wines we'll be tasting.

    We've also ordered DVDs in advance of trips to other countries to bone up on our history, which has really enhanced our overall travel experience.

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    1. That is a great idea, though most of the ones I have bought are CDs. I like to listen in the car so the audio-only format works well.

      The wine courses can be expensive if you follow the suggestion to get two bottles for each lesson. Joining with friends is a great idea, both to save money and to have a nice shared experience.

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  3. This sounds interesting, Bob. I am a huge proponent of continuing education...meaning until I die. Lately mine has been more tech related, which frustrates the bejeezes out of me, but still...keeps the wheels turning.
    I'll check out this series.
    b

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    1. This particular company does have plenty of tech-oriented choices, though their strength is in the more traditional art/history/philosophy/music courses.

      Let me know what you think.

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  4. These sound like great courses. Just wanted to mention that there is also a plethora of free online courses that one cant take that also makes it easy to learn while traveling. places like open Culture, Coursera, or MIT Open Courseware-where I am doing a poem writing class. I always like to take one in person class when I can because of the give and take but I am loving these free classes.

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    1. i have signed up to be alerted when three Coursera classes I want to take are being offered. I did complete a course through iTunes U which has hundreds of free offerings, all available for download from the iTunes tore.

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    2. I've tried the free courses and they are good in their own way but they are nothing like The Great Courses. They usually have a fixed schedule that you have to adhere to. There is homework, etc. And you have to be sitting in front of your computer. The quality of the instruction is a lot more variable, shall we say, than The Great Courses. The filming and graphics can be amateurish. Plus of course I don't need to be wasting my time hearing about drop/add period, office hours, exam schedules, etc.

      With The Great Courses I can listen while driving, or watch on my iPad while I'm cooking. The professors are consistently the best and they are almost universally entertaining.

      Bottom line: I've signed up for several free courses and have yet to finish one. I've finished nearly 40 of The Great Courses.

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    3. The only advantage I see of the free online courses is that the fixed schedule does result in a firmer dedication to stick with it and put in regular effort. Homework is helpful in exercising brain cells.

      Even so I prefer the flexibility and portability of the Great Courses.

      You've done 40 of them? That is impressive.

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  5. I have many many Great Courses And enjoyed them all. I would highly recommend utilizing thier Digital Downloads, for both video or audio. I download directly to my iPad, using thier Great Courses app, and can view or listen anywhere! The digital downloads are cheaper than the DVD's and many courses work well with just Audio only, which are cheaper still.

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  6. I have thought that the downloads would be the way I will go in the future. It is instant and less expensive.

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  7. I have thought that the downloads would be the way I will go in the future. It is instant and less expensive.

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  8. We're on the same wavelength. Check this out - free university courses. https://www.coursera.org/ article here: http://www.timesdispatch.com/news/local/education/college/u-va-opens-registration-for-free-online-classes/article_880e6746-0b21-11e3-a93e-0019bb30f31a.html

    Have fun!

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  9. Hi, Bob!

    I too recently got into the Great Courses and I'm pretty happy with them. IMHO, at least for the courses I gravitate to, DVD is the way to go. I'm getting to the end right now of Masters of War: History's Greatest Strategic Thinkers. Waiting on my mantel is Understanding the Universe: Introduction to Astronomy. (How could one NOT do that one on DVD??).

    HOWEVER, there's no way I could ever justify to myself paying actual retail prices for these courses. Turns out that the publisher is a serial discounter: there is always a catalog offering a large selection of the courses at 50% to 70% discount. And that's how and when I buy them.

    (Recently, I missed the discount deadline on anohter course I wanted, but no worries. I'm confident it will cycle back onto the discount catalog sooner or later.)

    Cheers!

    Alex in Virginia

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    1. Paying full retail would be silly. The ones I purchased were 70-80% off.

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    2. Paying full retail would be silly. The ones I purchased were 70-80% off.

      Delete
    3. Paying full retail would be silly. The ones I purchased were 70-80% off.

      Delete
  10. Thanks for the tip. I'm going to peruse the Great Course offerings (or at least the ones that are on sale!). Re. coursera,org. Are they free? Do you have to attend the lectures on their schedule, or can do watch them when you want to? Thx!

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  11. The Coursera material is free though they do have recommended readings. I haven't taken a course yet but my understanding is each course is offered during a particular time period and can only be taken then.

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    1. I took a Coursera course on Ancient Greek History. They are free. You can take or not take the quizzes that come after each lecture. (You get to take/retake them 3 times if you don't like your score the first time.) You watch/rewatch the lectures on your computer any time you want, but as Bob points out there is a defined time window within which the course is offered and you have to complete it.

      For free, what's not to like?

      Alex in Virginia

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    2. Thanks. I'm gonna try a coursere -- History of the World since 1300 -- and see if I can stay on schedule. I also saw a Great Course that looks interesting, but ... eeeek! That costs money!

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    3. Let me know what you think, Tom. I have yet to take a Coursera offering though I have my eye on three of them.

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  12. I am signed up for my first Coursera class-What A Plant Knows given by Prof. David Chamovitz of Tel Aviv University. It starts October 1 for 7 weeks. I downloaded one of the books for $9.99 and the other is a basic biology text that I am going to rent for $42. I would love to purchase the biology text but, my word, college text prices are astronomical. I picked this because I am developing an interest in botany.

    I have done a couple of the Great Courses that have been available from the library.

    Then there are quilting classes and I've always wanted to learn to knit.....So much to learn!!

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    1. Great information, Florence.

      The cost of college textbooks is a crime. It is usually one written by the professor giving the course that is the most expensive. Over time, I predict written textbooks will give way to digital versions and fall in price.

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  13. Thanks for sharing this useful information. I totally agree with it and that textbooks will definitely become outdated and ebooks etc. will be used.

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