Learn Your Way Through The Pandemic With Some Great Courses


This pandemic has provided a real challenge in terms of finding things to do. When many of our favorite activities are canceled or limited, we need to find alternatives for the sake of our sanity. As a culture critic who generally reviews films, it has been painful for me not go to the movie theaters, although not as painful as it might be to get sick.

Television is getting worse. Has anyone but me noted that the “housewives” on the different Real Housewives are not only wealthy but live soap opera lives? Maybe it should be called Real Trash of wherever. And we have more game shows where it looks like celebrity participants are on drugs they get so excited. Watching celebrities almost in tears as whoever is involved decides which celebrity will be unmasked and, therefore, not earning more money the following week than I’ll earn the following year is a bit much.

Even the ubiquitous streaming services have limits. There are, of course, a lot of old shows we went out of our way to miss in the past, but there are also some old favorites. Problem is, who wants to binge on a show with hundreds of rather similar episodes? It might have felt OK when we saw one a week, but seeing a whole lot of them just is wearing.

My favorite and best choice was signing up for the Great Lectures web site. For less than it costs for Netflix, I have thousands of hours of lectures from top experts. And they actually work to make complex topics interesting. Why watch medical shows that endlessly repeat the same general plot: strange disease with interesting people show up for an episode being treated by doctors who work insanely hard to cure them in between sex and betrayal.

On the other hand, during the height of the pandemic, I was watching a 24-lesson series on the Black Death. I know… that means I do have a weird view of the universe. But watching the damage done, somewhere between a quarter and a half the population of Europe and Asia were either dead from the disease or the chaos caused by it, put COVID-19 in perspective. And I certainly felt happier when the fact that we now know how to cure that disease (bubonic plague) was discussed.

There are hundreds of courses in all sorts of fields. The “Music in History” course was fascinating. Yes, it involved some great music, but instead of focusing on that alone, the lecturer pointed out how it reflected history. For example, Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio (although I was annoyed the lecturer kept replacing “seraglio” with “harem”) was greatly influenced by the invasion of Austria and the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire.

My wife and I got a great kick from the “Medieval Cities of Europe.” We’ve visited several and recognized the landmarks. The course, which resembled a walking tour in many ways (while we were able to sit at home and not exhaust ourselves) touched on the older areas of many cities. As regular visitors to Barcelona, we not only enjoyed being re-walked through the old city, but got a special kick out of the fact that some of the camera work was done in an outdoor bistro we patronized. And, as a bonus, there was a whole lecture on Antoni Gaudi, the genius architect who designed many of that city’s greatest treasures. We loved revisiting the great cathedral Sagrada Familia (still under construction after more than a century) where we actually had been able to attend a mass.

Currently, I’m switching from a really good course about Shakespeare, particularly on his use of language, to others to get a tiny break. Spending real time on many of his great plays is a pleasure. But I am also taking time to get into the 60-lesson course on world mythologies. Like many people my age, I learned about the Greek version and even some of the Norse legends, but there are a half dozen lessons on African myths and a group on Indian, both Asian and American.

We are shut in and a lot of our lives are shut down. But our brains should be growing. Think about going to Xfinity to get the courses. It’s never too late to learn.