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The World Was Never the Same: Events That Changed History

The World Was Never the Same: Events That Changed History

Professor J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma

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The World Was Never the Same: Events That Changed History

Course No. 3890
Professor J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
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Course No. 3890
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  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version features more than 800 visual elements including over 100 maps, historical photos of landmark events, artwork, and portraits of the many pivotal figures discussed, from Confucius to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On-screen spellings and definitions also help to reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

January 10, 49 B.C.: Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon River into Rome, igniting a civil war that leads to the birth of the world's greatest ancient civilization. October 12, 1492: The Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus, weary after months at sea, finally drops anchor at the island of San Salvador and takes Europe's first steps into the New World.

September 11, 2001: On a calm Tuesday morning, a series of terrorist attacks on the United States of America ignites a global war on terrorism that continues to this day.

History is made and defined by landmark events such as these—moments that irrevocably changed the course of human civilization. While many of us are taught that anonymous social, political, and economic forces are the driving factors behind events of the past, acclaimed historian and award-winning Professor J. Rufus Fears believes that it's individuals, acting alone or together, who alter the course of history. These events have given us

  • spiritual and political ideas,
  • catastrophic battles and wars,
  • scientific and technological advances,
  • world leaders both influential and monstrous, and
  • cultural works of unparalleled beauty.

Without them, human history as we know it today would be shockingly unfamiliar. In short, because of these events, our world would never be the same again.

Such is the approach of The World Was Never the Same: Events That Changed History, a captivating new course in which Professor Fears—a master storyteller and one of the most popular instructors on our Great Courses faculty—provides you with 36 of the most important and definitive events in the history of the world. It's an intriguing and engaging tour of thousands of years of human history, from the creation of the Code of Hammurabi (1750 B.C.) to the Battle of Lexington (April 19, 1775), to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream"speech (August 28, 1963), and beyond. And it's a chance for you to learn new insights about world history at the hands of an engaging historian.

An Expert's Guide to History's Greatest Moments

So what makes a particular historical event so defining?

Guided by his decades of immersion in the study of the past, Professor Fears narrows down the massive span of human history into 36 of its most powerful events. Using his expert knowledge and his impressive ability to draw out invaluable lessons from the past, he has chosen the events for The World Was Never the Same based on these three criteria:

  • The event in itself fundamentally changed history.
  • The aftermath of the event changed history.
  • The event and its impact still resonate with us today.

The result is a comprehensive and authoritative selection of events, each of which played a crucial role in transforming human civilization. What's more: Professor Fears avoids the common pitfall of treating his subject as a mere catalog or laundry list of events—instead, he takes great care to make these lectures feel like a grand, epic narrative of human history.

36 Defining Events, 36 Captivating Stories

Right from the first lecture, Professor Fears takes you back to the dawn of civilization; from there, you hopscotch across more than 3,000 years of history around the world, from the ancient city-states of Mesopotamia and Greece to medieval Europe and colonial America to revolutionary Russia and China. In each instance, Professor Fears weaves a captivating story about each event: what led up to it, how it unfolded, and how the world was changed as a result. More important, he uses these 36 events as guides for both understanding the past and learning from it.

With The World Was Never the Same, you'll learn about the importance of events that seem like logical choices, such as these:

  • The trial of Jesus in A.D. 36, in which the spiritual message of this religious leader was forever immortalized and would lead to one of the world's greatest world faiths
  • The discovery of the New World on October 12, 1492, which ushered in a profound era of exploration and conquest that would revolutionize the economic and political balance of Europe and lead to the creation of the United States of America
  • The Battle of Gettysburg on July 1–3, 1863, a pivotal battle in the American Civil War that would turn the tide in favor of the Union and the freedoms it sought to preserve
  • The dropping of the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, which brought World War II to a swift conclusion but also signaled the start of the atomic age.

Professor Fears also makes compelling cases for events that you might not have considered to be so revolutionary:

  • The creation of the Hippocratic Oath in 430 B.C., a pledge (still taken today) that reflected the intellectual freedom of Athens and the sacred mission of a doctor
  • The opening of the University of Bologna in 1088, which was Europe's first university and whose structure provided the blueprint for many modern universities
  • The inspiration for Dante's Divine Comedy on May 1, 1283, when the Italian poet first laid eyes on his beloved Beatrice, the woman who would lead him to write one of the greatest poems in the history of Western literature
  • The Battle of Vienna on September 12, 1683, which pitted the Ottoman Turks against the Holy Roman Empire and laid the groundwork for today's tensions between East and West

Whether it's an obvious or not-so-obvious choice, Professor Fears takes great care to tie each event to the 21st century, pointing out just how influential these and other moments were in shaping who we are and how we live. As Professor Fears states at the start of his course, "The best reason for studying history is not the accumulation of facts. It is to use the lessons of the past to make decisions in the present and to look into the future."

History Taught by a Master

If you've taken a Great Course with Professor Fears before, then The World Was Never the Same is his most impressive course yet—the perfect way to reconnect with him and his unique perspective on the past. And if you haven't yet had the chance to learn with this master teacher and winner of more than 25 teaching awards, then prepare yourself for an engaging experience cherished by so many of our lifelong learners.

Witty, engaging, and always informative, Professor Fears is the consummate history teacher. He draws you deep inside each event with his storytelling abilities; in many instances, he makes you feel as if you're actually there alongside the ideas as they're being discovered, the conflicts as they're being fought on land and sea, and the powerful speeches as they're being delivered to crowds of thousands.

Perhaps the greatest reward of these lectures is that they provide fuel for further thought and discussion. Listening to Professor Fears's impassioned explanations of why these particular events rank as the most important in human history is sure to prompt you to think about how you yourself understand and interpret the past.

So join Professor Fears on this grand tour of history's greatest events. It's an intellectual journey that proves how a single event can forever change the tides of history.

More than just learning about history, you'll feel as if you're actually engaging with it.

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36 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2010
  • 1
    Hammurabi Issues a Code of Law (1750 B.C.)
    Begin your survey of 36 events and ideas that changed history by taking a close look at the creation of Hammurabi’s code of law. With its concepts of minimum wage, family law, and victims’ rights, the code provided many fundamental elements that can still be found in today’s legal systems. x
  • 2
    Moses and Monotheism (1220 B.C.)
    Monotheism is a predominant religious tradition throughout much of the world, and its emergence dates back to the era of Moses. Here, discover how the life of Moses—including such iconic events as the Exodus and the issuing of the Ten Commandments—set the stage for three great religions that continue to influence adherents worldwide. x
  • 3
    The Enlightenment of the Buddha (526 B.C.)
    Explore another fundamental religious event that forever changed the world: the development of Buddhism through the teachings of Siddartha Gautama. The messages of this world faith—including leaving behind all that makes you angry and treating everyone with kindness—have helped billions ponder the meaning of their lives. x
  • 4
    Confucius Instructs a Nation (553–479 B.C.)
    Confucius was an ancient Chinese scholar who lost his job for speaking the truth and thus shaped the history of one of today’s most important nations. In revealing how Confucius shaped the world through the Dao (or “Way”), Professor Fears shows why all civilizations are indebted to this thinker and his profound philosophy. x
  • 5
    Solon—Democracy Begins (594 B.C.)
    The democratic ideals that form the core of Western civilization wouldn’t exist without Solon, the ancient Greek ruler responsible for introducing the first truly balanced democracy to Athens. Learn how this system was structured, why troubling economic conditions made the city-state ripe for political reform, and more. x
  • 6
    Marathon—Democracy Triumphant (490 B.C.)
    After democracy was created, it had to be protected. And no battle was more important to defending democracy in its formative stages than the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. Relive the clash between Athens and the massive Persian Empire; a conflict that involved decisive leadership and surprise tactics. x
  • 7
    Hippocrates Takes an Oath (430 B.C.)
    Thousands of years after it was first spoken, the Hippocratic Oath is still revered by doctors around the world. Travel back to ancient Athens and investigate how Hippocrates revolutionized our understanding of medicine—just in time for the Great Plague of Athens, which devastated the city-state in 430 B.C. x
  • 8
    Caesar Crosses the Rubicon (49 B.C.)
    Why was Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River in 49 B.C. such a momentous event in world history? What was the story behind this dramatic moment? And how did it bring about a political concept that would dominate Western civilization for the next 1,800 years? Find out in this fascinating lecture. x
  • 9
    Jesus—The Trial of a Teacher (A.D. 36)
    In A.D. 36, Jesus of Nazareth was put on trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate—and the verdict would forever alter the course of human civilization and spirituality. Follow the path of Christianity’s founder and examine why he was considered to be, at the time, such a revolutionary figure. x
  • 10
    Constantine I Wins a Battle (A.D. 312)
    Travel back to A.D. October 28, 312. Against a background of fierce Christian persecution, Constantine marches into Rome and becomes history’s first Christian emperor. In the process, this iconic—yet despotic—leader transformed his faith into a powerful religious force that would spread throughout Europe and the Near East. x
  • 11
    Muhammad Moves to Medina—The Hegira (A.D. 622)
    Islam is one of the world’s great monotheistic faiths, and in today’s world, is sometimes misunderstood. The spread of Islam around the world began in A.D. 622 with Muhammad’s flight into the city of Medina. This momentous date and its implications are the subject of this captivating lecture. x
  • 12
    Bologna Gets a University (1088)
    Before Cambridge and Oxford, there was the University of Bologna, founded in Italy in 1088. Here, Professor Fears details how Europe’s first academic institution emerged and, in doing so, reveals the origins of scholarly procedures and educational traditions that remain with us well into the 21st century. x
  • 13
    Dante Sees Beatrice (1283)
    Discover how Dante’s love for Beatrice—and the epic poem he would write to honor her—brought about the birth of the Renaissance. One of the most important works of literature ever written, The Divine Comedy focuses on the rebirth of the human spirit through the power of God’s love. x
  • 14
    Black Death—Pandemics and History (1348)
    Between 1347 and 1348, the Black Death killed 25 million people—nearly one-third of the population of Europe. Is it possible for tiny germs to transform the course of history? Or are humans above the ultimate destructive force of disease? Find out as you relive the traumatic story of this devastating event. x
  • 15
    Columbus Finds a New World (1492)
    Learn how Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World in October of 1492 set the stage for much of modern Western history. The story behind this iconic expedition—from the earliest attempts to gain political support to the last days of the explorer’s life—is one of high adventure. x
  • 16
    Michelangelo Accepts a Commission (1508)
    Just as important to history are beautiful events like the creation of artistic masterpieces. One of the most supreme of these: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Here, Professor Fears guides you through some of the work’s many powerful religious images, each of which illustrates the High Renaissance ideal of absolute beauty. x
  • 17
    Erasmus—A Book Sets Europe Ablaze (1516)
    Witness as Erasmus’s edition of the New Testament, which translated the Bible from Latin back into its original Greek, revolutionizes Christianity and paves the way for the Protestant Reformation. Along the way, learn what this work owes to the humanist ideology of the time and the invention of the printing press. x
  • 18
    Luther’s New Course Changes History (1517)
    One of the most defining moments in religious history was the Protestant Reformation. And it all started with the subject of this lecture: All Hallows Eve, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of Wittenberg University’s chapel and challenged Europe’s most powerful religious and political institutions. x
  • 19
    The Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588)
    One of the most decisive naval battles in human history, the defeat of the Spanish armada at the hands of the British navy, marked Britain’s transition from island nation into global empire. How did this epic clash come about? And what strategies did the British use to beat back the Spanish forces? x
  • 20
    The Battle of Vienna (1683)
    Using his expert storytelling abilities, Professor Fears recreates the 1683 Battle of Vienna—a defining moment in the struggle between the values of the Middle East and the values of the West. This battle between the Ottoman and Holy Roman empires would also create geopolitical tensions that remain even today. x
  • 21
    The Battle of Lexington (1775)
    The United States of America, the first modern nation founded on moral principles, wouldn’t exist without the battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Explore the moment that sparked the birth of our country, and learn how it led to a declaration of independence and a full-blown revolution against Great Britain. x
  • 22
    General Pickett Leads a Charge (1863)
    Had the Confederacy won the Civil War, the history of the United States would have been vastly different. And the reason for the Confederacy’s ultimate decline and defeat was the iconic Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863—the subject of this dynamic lecture on a pivotal moment in American history. x
  • 23
    Adam Smith (1776) versus Karl Marx (1867)
    Separated by almost a century, Adam Smith and Karl Marx could not have been more different in their economic views. And yet, as you discover, their respective works—Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Marx’s Das Kapital—established two conflicting views of capitalism that are still with us today. x
  • 24
    Charles Darwin Takes an Ocean Voyage (1831)
    Encounter another book that shook the foundations of history: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The product of an ocean voyage in 1831, the work described the theory of evolution by natural selection, an idea that would revolutionize not only the science and culture of Darwin’s time, but of the 20th century as well. x
  • 25
    Louis Pasteur Cures a Child (1885)
    In this lecture, Professor Fears explains why Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease changed history and, with it, the life of every man, woman, and child on the planet. It’s an engaging medical story that transformed rabies, anthrax, cholera, and more from immediate death sentences into conquerable illnesses. x
  • 26
    Two Brothers Take a Flight (1903)
    Humanity’s conquest of the air began with a single flight taken by two brothers from Ohio. Discover the story behind the Wright brothers’ 1903 first flight at Kitty Hawk, an unprecedented event that would have enormous implications for the future of commercial travel, warfare, and space flight. x
  • 27
    The Archduke Makes a State Visit (1914)
    With the 1914 assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the stage was set for World War I and for the turmoil that would last most of the 20th century. Travel back to Sarajevo as political terrorists commit one of the most shocking murders in modern history. x
  • 28
    One Night in Petrograd (1917)
    November, 1917: The Bolsheviks seized power from the broken Russian Empire. What emerged was the Soviet Union, which would become one of the most powerful geopolitical forces of the 20th century. Unearth the roots of Communist Russia and the revolutionary moment that turned the dream of a Communist state into a bitter reality. x
  • 29
    The Day the Stock Market Crashed (1929)
    It was a devastating economic event that shattered the lives of millions and created a tidal wave of effects around the world. Here, experience the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, from the personal perspective of an everyday American family; also, learn how it set the stage for events covered in subsequent lectures. x
  • 30
    Hitler Becomes Chancellor of Germany (1933)
    Professor Fears’s theme in this lecture is Adolph Hitler’s inauguration as chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Once in power, this political leader would unleash both World War II and the Holocaust. So how—and why—did history’s greatest monster gain such a strong hold over the German people? x
  • 31
    Franklin Roosevelt Becomes President (1933)
    The very same year Hitler became chancellor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president of the United States. Focusing on the honest and inspiring inauguration speech delivered on March 4, learn how Roosevelt instilled hope in a disillusioned and wounded nation, as well as prepared it to face the tough times ahead. x
  • 32
    Mao Zedong Begins His Long March (1934)
    No one in 1900 would have predicted that, a century later, China would become one of the world’s superpowers. And it all started in 1934 with the rise of Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist Party—whose authoritarian rule is the heart of this intriguing lecture. x
  • 33
    The Atomic Bomb Is Dropped (1945)
    Visit the birth of the Atomic Age with the explosion of the first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. It was a terrifying moment in world history that had an untold impact on the future of warfare, science, and geopolitics. x
  • 34
    John F. Kennedy Is Assassinated (1963)
    Why, and how, did the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, change the course of history? Find out the answer by exploring this iconic leader’s rise to political success, his handling of important international crises—and the tragic day that signaled an end to America’s innocence. x
  • 35
    Dr. King Leads a March (1963)
    Along with the Gettysburg Address and the inaugural addresses of Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy is Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Professor Fears retells the life of the civil rights leader behind this landmark moment, along with the ways he sought to heal a racially divided nation. x
  • 36
    Conclude the course with a pointed examination of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the new world they created. Afterward, meditate on the lessons learned from the past 35 lectures and come to realize one of the most fundamental lessons of history. x

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Your professor

J. Rufus Fears

About Your Professor

J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
Dr. J. Rufus Fears was David Ross Boyd Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma, where he held the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty. He also served as David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Before joining the faculty at the University of Oklahoma, Professor Fears was Professor of History and...
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Also By This Professor


Rated 3.3 out of 5 by 137 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 by The Procrustean Bed. Halfway through the second lecture I realized that I was listening to a Christian fundamentalist sermon about the Old Testament. That was it for me. Even in the first two lectures it was clear that this series suffers from the Procrustean bed problem that I have seen in other series. The speaker has to stretch or compact the material to fit the thirty-minute slot. Here, for example, the second lecture was entitled " Monotheism," but the speaker launched into a detailed account of Moses and the Israelites. Had he confined the lecture to monotheism, it might have lasred ten minutes. November 26, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by The World Was Never the Same: Events That Changed I respectfully disagree with the several negative reviews I saw regarding this course. If looked at purely as a reading of history, yes, there are some things lacking. But I see this course as the Professor's personal testimonial to what, in his many years of scholarship, he sees as key events. His passion, humor, and sincerity make this a great course. For those considering this course, you may want to first listen to one of the Professor's other lectures. The Churchill lectures are a great example. If you enjoy this style of presentation, the above course is a kind of culmination of this work. If, instead, if you want a "stick to the facts" and "never mix fact and opinion" type of lecture, perhaps this won't work for you. Personally, though, I loved it. November 22, 2015
Rated 2 out of 5 by Great Idea, Entertaining but Lacks Credibility In this course 36 events that changed the world are presented, each event being given roughly 1 lecture. Prof. Fears defines such events as having 1) Importance in themselves, 2) immediate recognition, 3) lasting effects. The presentation is more like a fireside than a lecture. Prof. Fears is a fairly good story teller and presents everything in modern terms, making things easier to understand. He tends to sensationalize and overdramatize and generalize in ways that I would expect from a preacher at a fireside, but in ways that I certainly don't expect from a Harvard educated professor. Ultimately the course presents some nice ideas and entertaining anecdotes that would satisfy a dabbler in history, but will dissatisfy minds desiring more intellectual rigor. There are a few reasons for this. 1) The events he picks don't always seem to match his own criteria and he seems to exclude events that are monumental. 2). He focuses heavily on religion, particularly Christianity, and seems to smuggle his own beliefs into the course. 3) There is reason to question the accuracy of some of the "facts" he purports. I'll share an example or two from each to give a flavor so that you can have an idea of what I'm talking about so that you can evaluate your purchase. 1) As an example of relatively unimportant events getting into the course, the battle of marathon between the Athenian "Democracy" (I've always read Athenian Empire at this point in history) and the Persian Empire is offered up as a triumph of democracy over monarchy. I'm not really sure how this military victory impacted government in the world considering that the idea of democracy in Greek writings had already been established, and how the Greeks ended up falling to Alexander the Great not too many years later. Dante's inferno and Michelangelo's painting of the Sistine chapel are also on the list. As great as they are, he didn't present much reasoning as to why or how they changed the world (more on these in number 2). Conspicuously missing from this list are 1) the agricultural revolution that allowed the development of cities; 2) the invention of writing; 3) the development of cities; 4) Alexander's conquest that spread Greek culture to the world; 5) the invention of moveable type; 6) Jamestown colony; 7) the industrial revolution in England; 8) the invention of the internet. These seem to have had far more impact on the world. 2) In the lectures on Michelangelo, for example, he spends far less time talking about how the art changed the world than he does about the scenes that are depicted, i.e. he talks about the creation of the world by God, sin by Adam and Eve, Noah, etc. God and Democracy seem to make their way into every lecture and describes past events in ways that sound, to me, evangelical christian (protestant) and Republican. 3). Just a few, very odd, things said. He paints Julius Caeser as a noble, honorable man who simply tried to save the Roman Republic from corruption. He talks about many bible stories as if they were fact (the creation and the flood among them) such as Jesus kindly dealing with the woman caught in adultery, and yet this story doesn't appear in any of the biblical manuscripts until the middle ages. Columbus was a deeply religious and pious man, not just one who knew he had to appear pious to get the backing of a Catholic king at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. He seems to indicate that all the great religious leaders pretty much said the same thing, to "do unto others." In short, the course is somewhat entertaining but lacks all the indicia of good scholarship. March 19, 2015
Rated 1 out of 5 by this is NOT worthy of theTeaching Company I own 12-15 Teaching Company courses, have borrowed 1 from a friend, and listened to 2 or 3 from the library. This was far and away the most disappointing. I enjoyed Fears’s mini-course on Churchill, and--unlike some of his critics here--don’t mind his style, oratory, or flourish. But the content of this course falls well below (what I consider to be) the standards of the Teaching Company. The concept is a good one (and I look forward to listening to the “turning points” in modern and US history one of these days), and Fears’s 4 criteria for an event’s being “world-changing” are sound. But too often he doesn’t deliver in demonstrating how an event really met those criteria. Often he spends the lion’s share of each 30-minute lecture rambling on inconsequential tangents, before quickly describing (but not analyzing or interpreting) the world-changing event. I admit I have not listened to this one for a long while (it’s the ONLY Teaching Company course I’ve not re-listened to at least once), but I recall a long made-up story of Joseph and pregnant Mary trying to get into the gates of Bethlehem, a long made-up story of 2 neighbors from the 1920s chatting about stocks and bonds and the latest consumer knickknack, and so on. The last one, on 9/11 mostly assured us Fears was patriotic. This really is not a history course, and it’s hard to say what it really is. March 14, 2015
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