Teaching students for fifteen years has allowed me to recognise some of the deficiencies of my early education.
One choice every teenager needs to make in school is whether to follow a vocational or academic route. It is an impossible choice. I would define the sciences and mathematics as a vocational route in the sense that they lead more easily to occupational success without relying on social capital (i.e the old boys’ network). The humanities should instead have a broader ambition: to guide conversations about what it is to be better people and for us to lead better lives.
Of course, in 2019 such conversations are tempered by the burgeoning power of neoliberalist thought. Economic forces underscore the nature of public discourse, especially as people increasingly receive their knowledge through the echo chambers of social media and openly partisan media. We also live in a time whereby human nature is laid bare with little ambition. Should not our leaders lead from the ideals of our communities? Do we not instead sense leaders seeking naked personal benefit via market-led narratives? The language our leaders use should not solely appeal to the base strains of hate and human inadequacy. Yet negative campaigning is successful, both sadly enticing and voter-friendly. Yet public discourse should move beyond the realms of academia, of esoteric wonderings and ambitious abstractions, and instead into of ideas formed with pragmatic truisms and hard choices. Amongst our peers the language of leaders should be both nuanced and direct and continuing from the work of the ancients – how can we lead better lives?
I chose all humanities subjects in my A-Levels because I thought I was studying the human spirit, its relation to society and conduct. I initially read psychology at university before becoming frankly disheartened by the necessary limits of its epistemological ambition to be taken seriously as a science. In response, I transferred to literature before realising that I desired a more rigorous framework in which to navigate the wider philosophies I encountered. But, rightly so, I committed to completing the course, reading around the humanities where I could.
I achieve well-enough but knew my frameworks of understanding were shaky and piecemeal. I had worked hard at everything officially put forward to me by my teachers, but my only guides proved to be playful French theorists with their flawed relativisms and contentious finger-signalling against humanity. It was not until I read for my MA in Education that I finally read around fields of psychology and sociology and history to a satisfying degree. Such musings gave me the language to understand those (necessary?) limits of my early education, especially in terms of its lack of intellectual frameworks. I read Grombrich and Sutherland, Polpolwski and Alexander, and through them accessed the historical frameworks I needed to guide my understanding of the humanities. I learned of the relativism of voice discourse and of the politically-motivated decisions to deprioritise the teaching of grammar and history in the 60s and 70s. I recognised the neoliberal paradigms that motivated the formations of school academy chains, with their emphasis on strong systems of accountability over the individual brilliance of teachers. I also realised how the messy and associative thinking of the humanities teacher will challenge his more pragmatic ambitions when he becomes a school leader. Amongst all of these and more, my education now means I possess the historical navigations to guide my thought.
There were several points of angst in my university education where I really needed a framework like this. Dropped into the course we were exposed to key thinkers as if we should be familiar to their ideas, not just their names. Sartre and Nietzsche, Hume and Locke, Keynes and Smith: all these and more offered radically new ideas, as dislocated and detached from my lived experience as much as were attractive and stimulating. I wrote several short books about my desires to find or form a syllabus to combine these ideas to where I had come. Of course, very few paid to professionally care about that mission could really be concerned. Nor, perhaps, should they. In lieu of such guides, I left university with a range of dislocated political and philosophical thought, trapped in perpetual relativism and cynical post-modernism. I was employable enough to satisfy figures for the course and university, and with celebratory grades. But I knew this was not enough. My schooling was good; my education was inadequate.
It is partly that which now drives my desire to curate these podcast libraries.
So what would I change now in my own early education? I would want to build for myself some of these historical ranges in the form of the following podcast series and books. These are going to serve as your guides, giving you more time than possible from a teacher or parent. You can trust that they will give you an internally coherent range of historical, political and philosophical thought, guiding you by nodal signposts of historical significance into threads of wider understanding.
At the very least, I would recommend that any learners read and listen to the minimum range of podcasts and books below. They will guide you through the full range of Western history. Only when you access that entire range will any detailed study of particular thinkers be truly learnt. Time and space will become more relevant as you realise that modern relates to 400+ years ago. And only then can you be educated for life, not just school!
What is the Place of Literature in a School’s Curriculum?
Literature enjoys a peculiar place in the school curriculum. It is not occupationally vocational like Mathematics or Business Studies (unless you count soft-skills…). It is not conceptually focused like History or Geography. It is not as immediately contemporary as Media Studies or Politics. But for some people, literature is their best subject.
There are some see the study of literature as merely the reading of specific books for an exam. Passing exams is occupationally important but focusing only on the exam is a tragic misunderstanding of the subject. Northrop Frye said famously that literature sits between philosophy and history: literature takes its framework from all of human history while it takes its ideas from philosophy.
So understanding a few books is not enough – your ambition should be to understand the whole range of human history and the very best ideas of philosophy. This is your heritage. This is your right. This is your duty.
How do Universities see Literature?
As you move towards university and beyond, knowledge of culture becomes essential. It provides you with both with a framework to understand new things, and as something that enriches your life in general.
Universities see literature as the gold-standard A-Level because it expects you to pursue an interest in all human culture. Such pursuit must be beyond the time and space of school. It should be a lifelong quest to be educated, and for that education to make your relationships, your jobs and your life better and richer and far more profoundly satisfying.
So Why Listen to Podcasts?
Reading ideas in private is a relatively new experience in human history. For millennia people would be educated through talk and listening, a back-and-forth exchange of ideas and thought. Podcasts are
Podcasts are essentially any audio that you can put on your phone. They are especially useful as you can listen to them whilst walking, or on a commute, as well as studying more formally.
The ability to listen to a podcast in any environment means you can continually educate yourself in your spare-time, and reclaim some of your mind from the distractions of phone adverts and Reddit…
Gregory Anderson 2019
What are our minimum expectations?
As a minimum, you must listen to all the Massolit videos of our Set Texts, preferably more than once. You should listen to them over the summer, and again before studying the books. (each text = 1 to 2 hours)
As another minimum expectation, you must listen to all of the ‘History of Ideas’ podcasts (3 hours).
As another minimum expectation, you should listen to the courses in Tragedy, Romanticism, and poetry (90 minutes to 3 hours each).
As another minimum, you are expected to listen to the History of English Literature Crash Course (10 hours).
Ideally, you will listen to the Crash Courses for Drama and for History. This will give you a framework that will allow you to understand where the texts fit into the world. (10 hours each)
The best students will take Cornell Notes after each podcast or so – prompts to help you remember.
You should also read Grombrich’s A Little History of the World and Sutherland’s History of Literature It. These, along with the relevant recommended books in those series, are great introductions and refreshers for anyone.
As you move towards university, you will likely stop completing different tasks relating to texts and instead you will discuss the texts directly. In Our Time is aimed at lay educated people (that is, graduates) on a series of interesting cultural topics. Each conversation is between 28 and 60 minutes long.
You may not understand all of every podcast, but you can still respond. See these In Our Time podcasts like enjoying a dinner party with the future-you, someone who is both highly-educated and very interesting!
The Western Tradition is also an excellent series that will give you the history of philosophy, ideas that have shaped how people are right now.
You can listen to these with your fellow students, friends and family. Aim to continue the conversation afterwards!
I would also highly recommend Poplawski’s Literature in Context. The narrative of this book is eruditely wonderful and balances readability with academic rigour. Quite simply the most important book I have read for my studies. Thank you Paul and co!
Ideally, you can listen to podcasts on an aspect of literature or culture that really interests you. Amazon sells a great series of courses that will give you tremendous insight into an aspect of literature, philosophy, history and/or culture. You can purchase one for the equivalent of 7GBP if you subscribe to Audible. We recommend a series of these at the end of this booklet.
Streetcar Named Desire https://www.massolit.io/courses/williams-a-streetcar-named-desire
The Handmaid’s Tale https://www.massolit.io/courses/atwood-the-handmaid-s-tale
Othello, scene by scene https://www.massolit.io/courses/shakespeare-othello-e57cfa26-266d-4975-a1e1-fb51737616b3
Othello, general themes https://www.massolit.io/courses/shakespeare-othello
Great Gatsby chapter by Chapter https://www.massolit.io/courses/fitzgerald-the-great-gatsby
Great Gatsby General Ideas https://www.massolit.io/courses/fitzgerald-the-great-gatsby-00154073-2406-4c4a-9399-372f277ccf2d
Percy Shelley https://www.massolit.io/courses/the-poetry-of-shelley
Blake Songs of Innocence and Experience https://www.massolit.io/courses/blake-songs-of-innocence-and-of-experience
Poetry of Thomas Hardy https://www.massolit.io/courses/the-poetry-of-thomas-hardy
Love Through the Ages https://www.massolit.io/courses/love-through-the-ages
How to Read and Analyse Poetry https://www.massolit.io/courses/poetry-how-to-read-and-analyse-poetry
Introduction to Poetic Form https://www.massolit.io/courses/poetry-introduction-to-poetic-form
Shakespeare on Stage https://www.massolit.io/courses/shakespeare-on-stage
Romanticism Course 12 Lectures https://www.massolit.io/courses/romanticism
18th Century Literature https://www.massolit.io/courses/18th-century-literature-an-introduction
Course in Tragedy 20 Lectures https://www.massolit.io/courses/tragedy-a-complete-history
Poetry of the Victorian Period https://www.massolit.io/courses/the-poetry-of-the-victorian-period
Modernism 1 Context https://www.massolit.io/courses/modernism-context
Modernism 2 Literature https://www.massolit.io/courses/modernism-literature
Modernism 3 Critical Perspectives https://www.massolit.io/courses/modernism-critical-perspectives
Philosophy of Literature https://www.massolit.io/courses/the-philosophy-of-literature
Drama Crash Course – 51 lectures in 10 hours and 16 minutes.
Literature Crash Course – 48 lectures in 8 hours 48 minutes.
World History Crash Course
History of Ideas
The Western Tradition
In Our Time
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qykl – Ideal link
- Politics in the 20th Century (In Our Time)
- Utopia (In Our Time)
- Marriage (In Our Time)
- The Jacobite Rebellion (In Our Time)
- The French Revolution’s reign of terror (In Our Time)
- The Diet of Worms (In Our Time)
- The Silk Road (In Our Time)
- Mary Wollstonecraft (In Our Time)
- The Industrial Revolution (In Our Time)
- Consequences of the Industrial Revolution (In Our Time)
- Chivalry (In Our Time)
- Consciousness (In Our Time)
- Memory and Culture (In Our Time)
- Imagination and Consciousness (In Our Time)
- Imagination (In Our Time)
- Memory (In Our Time)
- Nature (In Our Time)
- Jung (In Our Time)
- Cultural Rights in the 20th Century (In Our Time)
- The Philosophy of Love (In Our Time)
- Good and Evil (In Our Time)
- Aristotle’s Politics (In Our Time)
- Camus (In Our Time)
- Rhetoric (In Our Time)
- Simone de Beauvoir (In Our Time)
- Socrates (In Our Time)
- Neoplatonism (In Our Time)
- The Consolations of Philosophy (In Our Time)
- Truth (In Our Time)
- Feminism (In Our Time)
- Shakespeare and Literary Criticism (In Our Time)
- Multiculturalism (In Our Time)
- Truth, Lies and Fiction (In Our Time)
- The Avant Garde’s Decline and Fall in the 20th Century (In Our Time)
- Reading (In Our Time)
- The Renaissance (In Our Time)
- Masculinity in Literature (In Our Time)
- Death (In Our Time)
- The American Ideal (In Our Time)
- The Novel (In Our Time)
- Shakespeare’s Life (In Our Time)
- The Romantics (In Our Time)
- Modern Culture (In Our Time)
- Englishness (In Our Time)
- Dickens (In Our Time)
- Existentialism (In Our Time)
- Literary Modernism (In Our Time)
- Milton (In Our Time)
- Youth (In Our Time)
- Victorian Realism (In Our Time)
- The Sonnet (In Our Time)
- Sensibility (In Our Time)
- Oscar Wilde (In Our Time)
- Chaucer (In Our Time)
- Epistolary Literature (In Our Time)
- Heart of Darkness (In Our Time)
- Madame Bovary (In Our Time)
- Siegfried Sassoon (In Our Time)
- Pastoral Literature (In Our Time)
- The Odyssey (In Our Time)
- The Later Romantics (In Our Time)
- The Greek Myths (In Our Time)
- Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (In Our Time)
- Christina Rossetti (In Our Time)
- Chekhov (In Our Time)
- Elizabethan Revenge (In Our Time)
- History of Metaphor (In Our Time)
- James Joyce’s Ulysses (In Our Time)
- Roman Satire (In Our Time)
- The Brothers Grimm (In Our Time)
- The Metaphysical Poets (In Our Time)
- Tristram Shandy (In Our Time)
- Aesop (In Our Time)
- Animal Farm (In Our Time)
- Beowulf (In Our Time)
- Emily Dickinson (In Our Time)
- Wuthering Heights (In Our Time)
- Tess of the d’Urbervilles (In Our Time)
- Jane Eyre (In Our Time)
Great Courses: Each is between 12 and 30 hours
Courses – Purchase on Audible
A Brief History of the World
A Modern Look at Ancient Greek Civilization
Aeneid of Virgil
Ancient Greek Civilization
Ancient Greek Literature
Ancient Near Eastern Mythology
Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Then Prophecy, The Creation Of The Modern World
Argumentation – The Study of Effective Reasoning
Bible and Western Culture
Big History – The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity
Birth of the Modern Mind
Books That Have Made History
Brave New Words – The Creation Of Language
Building Great Sentences – Exploring the Writer’s Craft
Classic Novels – Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature
Classical Archaeology of Ancient Greece and Rome
Classics of American Literature
Classics of Russian Literature
Comedy Through the Ages
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Enlightenment – Invention of the Modern Self
Europe and Western Civilization in the Modern Age
European History and European Lives
European Thought and Culture in the 19th Century
European Thought and Culture in the 20th Century
Foundations of Western Civilization I
Foundations of Western Civilization II
Freedom – The Philosophy of Liberation
From Monet to Van Gogh – A History of Impressionism
From Plato to Postmodernism – Understanding the Essence of Literature and the Role of the Author
Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition
Great Ideas of Philosophy
Great Ideas of Psychology
Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 3rd Ed
Great Writers, Their Lives And Works
Herodotus, The Father of History
Heroes Heroines, and The Wisdom of Myth
History of Ancient Egypt
History of Ancient Rome
History of Christianity in the Reformation Era
History of England from the Tudors to the Stewarts
History of Freedom
History of Russia – From Peter the Great to Gorbachev
History of Science from 1700 to 1900
History of Science from Antiquity to 1700
History of the Bible- The Making of the New Testament Canon
History of the Construction of St. Peter’s Basillica
History of the English Language
History of the Supreme Court
History of the United States, 2nd Ed
History of the US Economy in the 20th Century
History of World Literature
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music
How to Listen to and Understand Opera
How to Read and Understand Poetry
Ideas in Politics
Ideas in Western Culture – The Medieval and Renaissance World
Iliad of Homer
Interpreting the 20th Century
Introduction to Greek Philosophy
King Arthur and Chivalry
Liberty And It’s Price – Understanding The French Revolution
Life and Legacy of the Roman Empire
Life and Operas of Verdi
Life and Work of Mark Twain
Life and Writings of C. S. Lewis
Life and Writings of Geoffrey Chaucer
Life and Writings of John Milton
Literary Modernism- The Struggle for Modern History
Lives and Works of English Romantic Poets
Long 19th Century – European History from 1789 to 1917
Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind
Masterworks of Early 20th Century Literature
Mind of the Enlightenment
Modern British Drama
No Excuses Existentialism and the Meaning of Life
Odyssey of Homer
Origin of the Modern Mind
Origins and Ideologies of the American Revolution
Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations
Origins of Life
Passions – Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions
Peoples and Cultures of the World
Philosophy and Human Values
Philosophy and Religion in the West
Philosophy as a Guide to Living
Philosophy of Mind
Philosophy of Religion
Philosophy of Science
Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues
Poetry – A Basic Course
Power Over People
Psychology of Human Behavior
Quest for Meaning
Questions of Value
Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations
Representing Justice – Stories of Law and Literature
Rights of Man
Science and Religion
Science Fiction – The Literature Of Technological Imagination
Science Wars – What Scientists Know and How They Know It
Search for a Meaningful Past – Philosophies, Theories and Interpretations of Human History
Self Under Siege – Philosophy in the 20th Century
Shakespeare – Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies
Shakespeare – Word and Action
Story of Human Language
Swift – Gulliver’s Travels
Terror of History – Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition
Theories Of Human Development
Theory of Evolution – A History of Controversy
Thinking about Capitalism
Tools of Thinking
Twentieth Century American Fiction
Understanding Linguistics – The Science of Language
Understanding Literature and Life- Drama, Poetry and Narrative
Using Literature to Understand the Human Side of Medicine
Utopia and Terror in the Twentieth Century
Voltaire and the Triumph of Enlightenment
Wisdom of History
World War I – The Great War
World War II – A Military and Social History