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The Teaching Co. has the cure for aggressive driving. The Springfield, Va., company sells “The Great Courses on Tape.” Taught by a roster of full-time professors from Harvard University to the University of California at Berkeley, the curricula cover Bach to Einstein and social deviance to biblical exegesis. Like books on tape, these lectures are more calming than distracting, giving the driver who is waiting behind a line of cars trying to make a difficult left turn something more substantial to do than fidgeting, cursing, or honking. Some of the series can be long enough to last through several weeks of commuting, even with a lengthy trip from the suburbs to downtown. “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition,” for example, is a wonderful survey. It has just been revised with an ensemble cast of a dozen doctorates and a total of 84 separate sessions (two sessions per cassette), starting with Pre-Socratics and the Sophists and ending with Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty. A competing “Great Ideas of Philosophy” with Daniel Robinson of Georgetown University clocks in at a more manageable 25 tapes and has a more casual tone. Those who prefer specializing over sampling can listen to such offerings as “The Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.” The subjects vary widely. Robert Hazen of George Mason University, a great proponent of popularizing science, has recorded an easy-to-understand “Great Principles of Science.” It is an excellent review at about the level of an advanced placement high school course or an undergraduate offering of the “physics for poets” variety, ranging from organic chemistry to plate tectonics. Peter Saccio of Dartmouth University, who is also an actor, discusses Shakespeare. Given the recent resurgence of interest in the Bard, Saccio’s insights into “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” as well as more obscure plays such as “Richard II” and “Cymbeline,” are valuable supplements to theater programs. Bill Messenger, a pianist from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, presents “Elements of Jazz.” Many of the teachers meet the challenge of being engaging, without even the benefit of live interaction. A good enough tutor can make even “the dismal science” of economics interesting. Timothy Taylor of the University of Minnesota has been popular enough to be featured on several different courses on economics, ranging from the basics to an overview of contemporary issues to a discussion of major thinkers in the field. Although only an introduction, these lectures offer a wonderful opportunity to lead a life of the mind. Thirty hours of instruction is about equivalent to a semester’s worth of attendance in a college classroom. Some of the academics are star scholars: John Searle, who describes “The Philosophy of Mind,” is a major figure in debates over artificial intelligence with his “Chinese room” argument against Turing machines. (To find out what all that means, try his brilliant, though argumentative, tape set.) The production values are decent. Voices are clear, and the sound is clean and constant. These are professors delivering lectures, however, and not entertainers performing scripts. They have notes, which they occasionally handle noisily, but they also have awkward moments and momentary blankness — there is an occasional belch, cough, or stutter. Anyone who engages in public speaking or who listens to many speeches will recognize that these lecturers are generally above average. Perhaps more important than their mastery over their subjects is their ability to package information successfully. The better presentations are distinguished by outline formats and explicit organization. A pleasant voice with good modulation is crucial; otherwise, even a few hours of modern philosophy can become interminable torture. Many of the audio tapes also come in video format. While the videos offer few advantages and cannot be used while behind the wheel, they may be preferable for topics with visual content, such as astronomy. They come with short booklets that summarize the content and offer glossaries. The success of this enterprise is heartening. Its commercial viability is a testament not only to traffic congestion but also our desire for knowledge. Critics complain that American mass culture is declining into ignorance. This is an excellent counterexample. It offers hope for a deliberative democracy. Anybody willing to sit through a review of “Plato’s Republic” is likely to have interesting ideas about what it would take to be a philosopher-king or whether we would want to develop such a person. It is the effectiveness of education that must be improved. The lectures are uniformly worthwhile, but the tapes are slightly overpriced. At the discount sale rates, which are offered frequently, they can be recommended without hesitation. For example, the talks on the “Iliad and the Odyssey” cost about $90 each purchased separately, but can be had for $130 total as a combination or for $250 with lessons on the “Aeneid,” Chaucer, and Milton in a large package. So stock up to learn what you missed in college. Frank H. Wu is clinic director and an associate professor at Howard University School of Law.

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