To help keep myself focused, basically by staying tethered to the computer when I’m working, I’ve been listening to podcasts. First of all, it’s more comfortable than getting up and going outside. With the humidity running well over 100%, I feel as though I’m being waterboarded much of the time. Sure, I grew up outside of DC, but I’m acclimated to Denver now. Really, you want the Gitmo guys to break? Send ’em here and just have ’em walk around for a few minutes. They’ll be singing like Maria Callas.
Which podcasts? There’s a wealth of stuff. Radio Lab. This American Life. The Stanford Business School Entrepreneurship Corner. The Hoover Institution has a bunch of stuff. The nice thing is that when miss some of the lecture because I’m concentrating too much on work, I can back the thing up and hear it again. Try that with an actual professor.
A friend of mine turned me on to the Open Yale Courses, though, and for the last week, I’ve been sitting in the classroom of Donald Kagan’s survey course on ancient Greek civiliation. Kagan’s a real researcher, has written a great history of the Peloponnesian War.
He’s can also be hugely entertaining. He understands that teaching stadiums-full of undergraduates a survey course is almost as much showmanship as scholarship. His description of hoplite warfare is worth the price of admission (although not necessarily the price of tuition, which I guess is why it’s online). Fortunately, this doesn’t translate into misguded attempts to be “cool.” Kagan’s disdain for the state of core liberal arts education is, I think, quite real. I have no idea what his politics are, but he wears his small-c academic conservatism well.
On second thought, I do know, at least a little, what his politics are. He can’t be a raging leftist because he’s a fan of Victor Davis Hanson’s scholarship. He credits Hanson, as a farmer, with the key insight into how the Greeks developed oligarchic and then democratic institutions, that being the invention of the family farm. The connection to the land gave the farmers a literal stake in the society, and a desire to participate in the polis‘s decision-making. The steady virtues required to be a farmer also benefitted one who wanted to be a citizen, rather than a subject. It’s a story that’s also part of America, something we still consider to be true today.
Productive work itself is virtuous. But it’s nice to be able to combine it with learning something about how the world.