Wisdom of History

Course No. 4360
Professor J. Rufus Fears, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
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Course No. 4360
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Course Overview

Do the lessons passed down to us by history, lessons whose origins may lie hundreds, even thousands, of years in the past, still have value for us today? Is Santayana's oft-repeated saying, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" merely a way to offer lip service to history as a teacher—or can we learn from it? And if we can, what is it that we should be learning?

Professor J. Rufus Fears believes that not only can we learn from history—we must. In The Wisdom of History, his newest course for The Teaching Company, he draws on decades of experience as a world-renowned scholar and classical historian to examine the patterns of history. Ignoring them, by choice or because we've never learned to see them, is to risk becoming their prisoner, repeating the mistakes that have toppled leaders, nations, and empires throughout time.

In this personal reflection on history, Professor Fears has taken on the challenge of extracting the past's lessons in ways that speak to us today, showing us how the experience of ancient empires like those of Rome and Persia have much to teach us about the risks and responsibilities of being a superpower. He shows how the study of those who left their impact on an earlier world—Caesar Augustus or Genghis Khan, George Washington or Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi or Josef Stalin—can equip us to make responsible choices as nations, citizens, or individuals.

You may not agree with everything Professor Fears says history teaches us—for example, that the desire for freedom and democracy is not shared by everyone and never has been—but that is fine with him, even desirable. For example, here's what he writes about the accompanying course bibliography:

"I have followed Lord Acton's dictum that it is the mark of an uneducated person to read books he or she agrees with. The educated person reads books he or she disagrees with. Thus I have frequently recommended books that disagree with me because these are the ones we find most stimulating."

The challenge Professor Fears poses, to seek such stimulation and examine history closely, is especially pertinent during the "ahistorical age" he says we live in—an era when too many people are willing to invest in a "dangerous delusion" that "science, technology, the global economy, and the information superhighway all make us immune to the lessons of history," and that "in an age of global economy, war and tyranny will become things of the past."

A Profound Challenge

This delusion, Professor Fears says, has become more dangerous in light of recent history.

"The terrorist attack on our country was a watershed for American history. 9/11 presented the United States with a challenge as profound as the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. The Wisdom of History was conceived in my conviction that if America and its leaders are to meet that challenge, then we must learn and apply the lessons of history."

Because it addresses enduring issues that have contemporary relevance, this course is perhaps even more timely than any current headline. It offers a relevant context for understanding the post-9/11 world Professor Fears says has transformed our country and influenced his own intellectual growth; a world in which the Middle East plays—as it does in this course—a recurrent and crucial part.

Like Professor Fears's five previous courses—A History of Freedom, Famous Greeks, Famous Romans, Churchill, and Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your LifeThe Wisdom of History is taught with passionate conviction and love of subject.

For those who have already enjoyed one or more courses by Professor Fears, The Wisdom of History makes an ideal companion piece. And for those new to Dr. Fears, this course is ideal as an introduction to the work of a scholar whose mastery of his subject and ability to present it with clarity and spirit has been repeatedly honored by his peers and students.

Professor Fears has extraordinary skills as both teacher and scholar. He has received 24 university and national teaching awards; he was named three times by University of Oklahoma students as Professor of the Year, and once as Most Inspiring Professor.

Vivid Narratives from a Superb Storyteller

Professor Fears creates vivid narratives of people and events that continue to reverberate in your mind long after you've paused a lecture to think about what you've just heard. This skill has helped make his courses among our most popular, and it is on frequent display in these lectures.

But in a panoramic exploration that ranges from the ancient Greeks and Hebrews to the history of this nation, and in his unflinching and perceptive portraits of those who shaped our world for better and worse, Professor Fears supplies something more than just another telling of history, no matter how engrossing.

By filtering history through his personal perspective—and inviting us to take seriously the effort to distill laws or lessons from the past—he is determined to teach us to see history from a fresh perspective that both evokes the past and speaks to the present. The result is a course that teaches us, by example, how to learn from history. We can add what we learn to the storehouse of hard-won wisdom each of us have already built up to make our own decisions, both privately and as citizens or public leaders.

Some of History's most Provocative Themes

What sorts of themes does Professor Fears invite us to consider? He uses an intimate portrait of Winston Churchill, a man who understood history deeply and wisely, to tell us that:

  • Despite the importance of doing so, we do not learn from history.
  • Science and technology cannot immunize us from history's lessons.
  • Freedom, which Americans believe is longed for by people worldwide, is not a globally shared value. By contrast, desire for power, whether wielded as a despot, or as a benevolent empire or superpower, is a universal value.
  • Known as the cradle of civilization, the Middle East has also been the graveyard of empires, no matter what their intention, as the Romans and so many others have learned.
  • America will experience the same ultimate destiny as the memorable democracies, republics, and superpowers of the past.
  • Religion and spirituality—and the lust for power—are the most profound motivators in history.
  • Nations and empires rise and fall not because of anonymous social and economic forces but because of decisions made by individuals.
  • A true statesman possesses four qualities: a bedrock of principles, a moral compass, a vision, and the ability to build consensus to achieve that vision.

Professor Fears also declares that the United States, because of its unique foundation in freedom and the power it wields through science and technology, "might still be able to provide lessons and leadership to guide the world into a new age of prosperity—if Americans are willing to learn from the past." We are not free from the lessons of history, but we can learn from those lessons and make our decisions based on what we learn.

Although most of us will never achieve the knowledge and understanding of history wielded by a man like Churchill, the end of this course indeed brings us to the same position in which Professor Fears placed him at its beginning—armed with a historical perspective that can, if we choose to heed its wisdom, help guide our lives and choices for the future.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Why We Study History
    We define the wisdom of history as the ability to think historically, that is, to use the lessons of the past to make decisions in the present, and to plan for the future—as Winston Churchill did in preparing for and executing his destiny as a statesman. x
  • 2
    World War I and the Lessons of History
    This lecture asks why the last century—unequalled in advancements in technology, science, education, and knowledge—is also unequalled in the destructiveness of its wars, the scale of its human suffering, and the savagery of its tyrannies. x
  • 3
    Hitler's Rise and the Lessons of History
    Churchill called World War II "the unnecessary war." The existence of Adolf Hitler is a pre-eminent example of the lessons history tries to teach us. This lecture looks at how the failure of Woodrow Wilson and the generation of politicians after World War I demonstrate the consequences of ignoring those lessons. x
  • 4
    World War II and the Lessons of History
    Winston Churchill understood that Stalin was a tyrant as evil as Hitler, and that Communism was as evil as National Socialism. But as he attempted to heed history's lessons and prevent the Allies from repeating and compounding the mistakes made after World War I, his warnings were ignored. x
  • 5
    Is Freedom a Universal Value?
    Freedom consists of three separate ideals. Those ideals—national, political, and individual—of freedom have achieved a unique balance in the United States, the result of a likewise unique confluence of historical currents. But history teaches that such a balance is not universal, and that failure to understand this lesson can have dire consequences. x
  • 6
    Birth of Civilization in the Middle East
    America's foreign policy has long been based on the belief that freedom is a universal value. But the history of what is now known as the Middle East shows that nations, like individuals, frequently choose the perceived security of despotism to the responsibilities of freedom, with great civilizations—ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, for example—rising and falling with no concept of freedom. x
  • 7
    The Trojan War and the Middle East
    The power vacuum created by the collapse of the Hittite and Egyptian empires led to the most famous war of antiquity, which demonstrates for us that a balance of power is a fragile and dangerous mechanism for maintaining peace. x
  • 8
    Ancient Israel and the Middle East
    The Old Testament, our earliest example of historical writing, has in the book of Samuel profound lessons for us today. The story of King David teaches that there is a profound moral dimension to history and that private and public morality cannot be separated. x
  • 9
    Ancient Greece and the Middle East
    Herodotus composed his Histories of the war between Persia and Greece in an effort to explain the ways of the gods to men, seeking to understand through history and its moral dimensions why nations rise and fall. He found his explanation in the concept of hybris, the outrageous abuse of power that leads nations and individuals to disaster. x
  • 10
    Athenian Democracy and Empire
    Athenian democracy rested on values fundamentally identical to American democracy. It teaches us that empire and democratic freedom are compatible, that democracies do not necessarily make peaceful neighbors, and that wars undertaken to spread democratic values can end in defeat and disaster. x
  • 11
    The Destiny of the Athenian Democracy
    America shares with ancient Athens a fundamental conviction that it is the duty of the strong to come to the aid of the weak, with corollary beliefs in pre-emptive war, often with the expectation of being welcomed as a liberator. The experiences of ancient Athens suggest that these are dangerous delusions. x
  • 12
    Alexander the Great and the Middle East
    Alexander was uniquely successful in his ability to solve the problem of the Middle East. He ruled not by imposing Greek ideals but by becoming a Middle Easterner, accepting the ethnic and religious diversity of the Middle East and its long tradition of absolute rule. x
  • 13
    The Roman Republic as Superpower
    History teaches that it is very difficult to be a superpower with a constitution designed for a small city-state. Rome was ultimately forced to choose whether to keep the freedoms of a republic or to remain a superpower. Its choice determined the future politics of Europe and the Middle East to this day. x
  • 14
    Rome of the Caesars as Superpower
    The Roman Empire did far more than the Roman Republic to advance the cause of individual freedom. It offered a model of how to achieve peace and prosperity over a large geographical area while securing individual rights, ethnic autonomy, and local political freedom. x
  • 15
    Rome and the Middle East
    The Middle East supplies a key to understanding the history of Rome. Rome's attempts to bring stability, peace, and Roman political values to Judea illustrate why the Romans found a solution to the problems of the Middle East so intractable. x
  • 16
    Why the Roman Empire Fell
    Since the time Rome was declining and falling, historians, moralists, and countless others have tried to explain why. In addition to threats from Germanic tribes, much of the explanation lies in Rome's involvement in the Middle East and the cycle of nation building, annexation, and terrorism that followed. Failure to solve these problems reduced the Roman Empire to a relic. x
  • 17
    In an important fashion, Christianity was a triumph of the religious values of the Middle East over the traditions of Greece and Rome. The rise of Christianity and Islam, within the context of the Roman Empire, illustrates the power of religion as a motivating force in history. x
  • 18
    Christianity and Islam have much in common. Yet from the beginning of Islam in the 7th century they have been locked in conflict. The Byzantine Empire and the Crusades demonstrate enduring lessons about the Middle East as the graveyard of empires. x
  • 19
    The Ottoman Empire and Turkey
    Mustapha Kemal, known to history as Ataturk, is the most remarkable and successful statesman produced by the modern Middle East. His creation of a unified Turkey built on a foundation of secularism and ethnic nationalism is a most instructive example of how to create a nation-state in the Middle East that is based on European political and cultural values. x
  • 20
    The Spanish Empire and Latin America
    Despite its proximity to the United States, its vast resources, and its industrious population, Latin America has never developed enduring institutions of democracy. Instead, it has often given us examples of civil war and despotism. The history of Latin America shakes the assumption that democracy in one country will spread to neighboring countries. x
  • 21
    Napoleon's Liberal Empire
    Napoleon saw himself as a combination of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, but his attempts to transform Europe as a benevolent despot failed. His career attests to both the enduring lesson of hybris and the danger of pre-emptive wars in the name of liberal and democratic ideals. x
  • 22
    The British Empire in India
    The British believed they were combining liberty and empire, but, for many of their subjects, Britain was simply an example of the lust for power as a motivating force of history. The British experience in India illustrated the power of other forces—ideas and religion—to shape history. Who could have imagined a frail Indian barrister could, without violence, bring such an empire to its knees? x
  • 23
    Russia and Empire
    In both 20th-century Russia and China, democratic revolutions would end in savage tyrannies. The wisdom of history teaches us that this is not an accident, but the predictable result of the historical development of both countries. x
  • 24
    China and Empire
    Civilization rose in China independently from the birth of civilization in the Middle East. But like the Middle East, China throughout its history has chosen despotism over freedom, with Confucius's notion—of order flowing from above—as an ideal that persists, producing despotism even out of a revolution aimed at establishing democracy. x
  • 25
    The Empire of Genghis Khan
    Genghis Khan is one of history's bloodiest conquerors, yet modern historians see him as a statesman who brought a new era of achievement to regions he conquered. His life and legacy teach the lesson of the lust for power—and its ambiguous consequences. x
  • 26
    Britain's Legacy of Freedom
    This lecture considers the heritage of freedom that developed in England and was passed on to America, where it merged with four other crucial historical currents of freedom—the Old Testament, Greece and Rome, Christianity, and the U.S. frontier. x
  • 27
    George Washington as Statesman
    Since Herodotus and Thucydides, the question has been asked: In a time of crisis, can a democracy bring forth leaders superior to those produced by autocracy? The short answer is "yes," as is the longer one, with this lecture offering the first of two examples from our nation's history. x
  • 28
    Thomas Jefferson as Statesman
    Napoleon believed himself destined to establish a new Roman Empire, but it was his democratic contemporary, a man of far different moral character, whose decision to purchase the Louisiana Territory created an empire far larger, more enduring, and more noble than anything Napoleon imagined. x
  • 29
    America's Empire of Liberty—Lewis and Clark
    Americans are reluctant to describe this country as an empire, but the United States is one of the most successful imperial nations in history. This lecture explores the consequences of Jefferson's foresight in not only accomplishing the Louisiana Purchase—the largest expansion of territory ever made by purchase and negotiation—but in choosing the ideal men to lead the expedition to explore those new lands. x
  • 30
    America and Slavery
    The United States was founded in the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal." However, slavery was recognized by the Constitution as the law of the land. Ultimately, only the Civil War could resolve Americans' understanding of the fundamental meaning of freedom. x
  • 31
    Abraham Lincoln as Statesman
    At the beginning of the Civil War, many in Europe and America believed that the decay of democracy was embodied in the choice of a backwoods solicitor to guide his nation. Instead, Lincoln's presidency provided the ultimate testimony to the ability of democracy to produce leaders in a time of crisis. x
  • 32
    The United States and Empire
    With the end of the Civil War, the once-more-United States entered the stage of world politics, making it clear to the powers of Europe that this young nation, despite its recent internal conflicts, was not going to fade away. But as America began its appearance on that stage, could it reconcile its values as a democracy with its actions as a superpower? x
  • 33
    Franklin Roosevelt as Statesman
    During World War II, the rule of totalitarian governments extended from Spain to Vladivostok. Yet democracy was able to triumph. As was the case with Britain and Winston Churchill, the United States was able to produce, in Franklin Roosevelt, a wartime leader with few equals in history. x
  • 34
    A Superpower at the Crossroads
    Harry Truman believed that America was chosen to bring freedom to the world and that to achieve this, America must be a superpower. In the process, the United States entered into the legacy of the empires of Europe and Asia—in the Middle East, Indo-China, and Korea. The consequences are still with us. x
  • 35
    The Wisdom of History and the Citizen
    The wisdom of history has lessons for each of us, both as citizens and as private individuals. The Founders of our country were successful as statesmen because they thought historically and understood that history is the most important discipline for citizens of a free republic. x
  • 36
    The Wisdom of History and You
    We look at what each one of us in our personal lives can take away from history—which can be described without trivialization as one great self-help book, more valuable than all the guides that fill the shelves in airport bookstores—and discover perhaps its greatest lesson. 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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Wisdom of History is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 139.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Look at History Rufus Fears really makes his points. Among them, empires die in the Middle East. May we learn at least that lesson.
Date published: 2018-10-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Replete with Insights for Our Times I am an avid consumer of the Great Courses and have thoroughly enjoyed the vast majority of them. However this course is hands-down the best of the bunch. Dr Fears is an engaging speaker and a master of his subject matter. Interestingly, the course begins with the twentieth century because Fears believes that this century illustrates most clearly to the disastrous consequences which ensue when leaders do not learn the lessons of history. Then he leads us back to the dawn of civilization in the middle east and traces the rise and fall of empires through the present day, illustrating how the lessons of history have played out in each historical era. This course represents not only a whirlwind tour of world history but also a thoughtful guide to the politics of our modern times.
Date published: 2018-10-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Wisdom of History Dr. J Rufus Fears offers some of the great incites which he has gleaned from his study of the classics and his study of history. Furthermore he is quite entertaining in relating these incites to the listener. By listening to his CDs on my daily commute to and from work, I have become more knowledgable, have become aware of universal truths about human history and behavior which I had not previously appreciated and have been able to relate these concepts to the teenage students in our home who are now taking their high school history courses. Dr. J Rufus Fears' audible Products are superb. Good value. Highly recommended by me.
Date published: 2018-10-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Different Slant As always it's Rufus as a wonderful story teller. He recounts history as events and consequences we don't learn from. Very interesting.
Date published: 2018-10-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative! Dr Fears is quite the story teller and really makes it interesting.
Date published: 2018-09-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from So arrogant! I have only listened to the first six lectures. So I might change my mind by the time I am done. But so far I am not at all impressed. The lecturer constantly opines that people don't listen to history. Okay to say this once or twice, but so far that has been the main message. Rather non-informative and arrogant, since of course what he really means is that these benighted souls don't interpret it the way he does. Even worse is that he has never stated what these politicians should have done. He says that so many people thought wrongly that WWI and WWII couldn't happen (which really isn't news to anyone). But he never said what they should have done to avoid these millions of deaths. He idolizes Churchill, so you'd think he would tell us what Churchill would have done to avoid the wars. Hopefully he does give some positive lessons in the remaining lectures. The last two have not been as annoying at least, although we still have not yet gotten to positive lectures.
Date published: 2018-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Its what it's all about This is probably the best overall coarse I have received from you and I have had a lot. A must for anyone liking history.
Date published: 2017-12-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History as a Tool for Future Decisions I have become a big fan of Professor Fears' courses. His colorful storytelling capabilities captures my attention and creates an inquisitive mindset to learn even deeper facts of the underlying story. In this course, his continued theme of using history as a means of making future decisions is prevalent and applicable in my daily life. Many of the greatest leaders in history are those who maintain the moral compass that guided them throughout their lives. So, too, do we utilize this moral compass as a means decision-making and investment of time throughout our day. Most importantly, I enjoyed his correlation of historical events from 457 BC to those of more modern day catastrophes. The comparisons of traits from immoral leaders and dictators of ancient time to the moments of history that gave us Hitler, I found particularly interesting. You will experience a wonderful set of lectures that keep your interest and teach you the skill of using your moral compass to live a fulfilling life. I highly recommend this course to anyone wishing to grow in knowledge of history.
Date published: 2017-07-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A hard lesson, and many of them! Dr. Fears is not one to take lightly. He is opinionated, bombastic, and at times quite hard to get through. That said, he is highly insightful and deeply passionate. His view of the lessons of history are compelling and literally unforgettable. You will never read or watch the news the same again after you learn Dr. Fears' gloss on our, and all other, times.
Date published: 2017-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wisdom of History I initially viewed this series as a video lecture opportunity offered at the village clubhouse. I was so impressed with Rufus Fears and his amazing presentation that I bought my own copy. This lecture series offers more than just historical facts. The message is timeless and can be applied to everyday living.
Date published: 2017-06-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting take on historical perspectives. Compelling presentation that makes "history is the interpretation of the past in the political necessity of the present"
Date published: 2017-03-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Essential addition to one's life toolbox I wish I had this course earlier in my career. A trained engineer by profession, I took great interest in economics to enhance my decision making capabilities but never gave weight to the wisdom of history as such until Professor Rufus showed me what I've missed. I've charted my life and career according to our best values to the best of my ability, but I realize now what I've been doing unconsciously would have been taken to far greater depths by consciously learning the framework laid out masterfully by Professor Rufus. In general the laws and value takeaways are universal, but one may have tune according to the local culture but consciously adopt the framework to be a better person and add value. I've purchased the video format, you've to see Prof. Rufus lecturing and storytelling in person. I believe the audio alone is a diminishment. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2017-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Somewhat "Contained" Rufus If there is anything possessed by this Professor, it is "style". He is a loveable, avuncular type who is absolutely adored by his students at the UofO. I have seen videos of his sometimes boisterous, sometimes raucous lectures where he even invades the student areas of the lecture hall, chasing students, stick in-hand in mock agitation only to make a never-to-be-forgotten point. He is passionate and, of course, opinionated...but, NEVER boring. Such material, as this course, can be presented, on the one hand, with traditional dryness, dates, facts and the "naming" of events. At the other extreme Professor Fears can, and often does, allow his legendary storytelling and raconteur style to wax poetic. In this broad overview from Hammurabi to our own era, Professor Fears strikes a balance, a middle-of-the-road teaching style paying as much attention to the enumeration of facts as to the well told anecdote...all the while presenting the lessons to be learned, the nuggets of wisdom and the take-aways from each lecture. The overarching value in this series of lectures is the framework or modeling of the information presented, giving the student a neat mental shoebox in which to put and correlate the information presented. And lastly, having presented many a historical ponderable, he asks many fundamental questions about us, our own situation, in our own time. Ostensibly, after 36 lectures of information, scenarios and stories, we are able to use what we've learned to better understand our own place in history and our likely future. Many will like a more facts, dates, events approach. Many will like the flamboyant raconteur Rufus. But, after enjoying nearly all of Prof. Fear's offerings at The Great Courses, I believe ALL will like and enjoy this middle-of-the-road, this "contained" Rufus. Pour yourself a glass of wine and hit the "play" button.
Date published: 2017-01-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wisdom of history. Professor Fears puts forth his thesis as though he were a primer attorney .He then supports every aspect in clear historical factual fashion,making the course abundantly clear and amazingly entertaining.For those who enjoy an eloquent lecturer as well as a great story teller this course is a must. I had taken his course on Churchill and that was a great Segway into this course.
Date published: 2016-08-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well Worth The Time Course was well organized and succinct. Each completed session left me wishing it were longer.
Date published: 2016-06-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from All "Wisdom" Has a Point of View I have seldom had such mixed feelings about a course from the Teaching Company (and I have viewed around 60 of them now), and yet -- overall -- I think there is much that is worth-while in this course offering. In fact, since I regularly found myself continuing a "discussion" with professor Rufus throughout the day after viewing a lecture, I regard this as one of the most lively offerings from the Great Courses! As a fellow historian (but one lacking the superb accolades earned by Professor Rufus over his career), I certainly applaud his enthusiasm for history and for believing that it can convey important lessons to us (with the important caveat that such lessons, as in the nature of "beauty," considerably depend upon the eye of the beholder). Anyone considering this course who hungers for an overview of history that centers on the greatest and most noble of human hopes, but also includes invariable sadnesses and failures, will likely find that you are spurred on to investigate some of these areas in greater depth on your own. Furthermore, the very fact that Dr. Rufus' themes are heavily value-laden -- a somewhat unpopular approach in certain venues these days -- means that any viewer will find him/herself quite engaged with the professor, whether in agreement or in disagreement. This course has the great virtue of being impossible to regard passively; you WILL be drawn into the discussion, and likely find that you have gained some new awareness of your own values as a consequence. Dr. Rufus is an engaging personality who regales his listeners, not with a dull list of dates and names, but with wonderfully animated tales of the past, and in such a way that even familiar stories seem fresh, yielding many "lessons" worth pondering. The same themes of human arrogance, drive for power, and inability to learn from the past occur again and again, but so also do instances of human greatness, vision, and decency. His concluding lectures make it clear that he expects each of his listeners to actively decide for themselves what the "lessons" of history are, and -- very importantly -- to apply them to their own lives so that they can make a positive difference "in the only life we know with certainty we will ever have." The problems with this course, such as they are, lie in great measure with the decision to provide such a sweeping overview of major themes covering all of recorded history. To a certain extent, the compression necessary to "fit" this vast history into only 36 lectures results, predictably, in an overview that notes more of the "forest" than the "trees," although he does use specific individuals and events to illustrate his points. Finally, some caveats, for what they may be worth: o I am troubled by some of his generalizations regarding the overwhelming "positives" contributed by such empires (or, in today's lingo, "superpowers") as Rome and the British Empire. In particular, the high cost to individual persons and to affected subcultures raises, for me, alternative moral questions that conflict with the "higher purpose" of such empires. Perhaps another way of viewing/treating this problem is to ask: do the attainments or advances of such empires "justify" the costs paid by the subjugated peoples? And, relatedly, how in the heck would one begin to "compute" that answer? o Lecture # 30, on "America and Slavery" -- that followed the excellent lecture on the Lewis and Clark expedition -- was disappointingly weak. It could have yielded an intriguing lecture about the moral price paid -- by the Founders and by the US citizenry -- for trying to ignore the grave immorality of slavery over many decades. The question becomes more intriguing when, as he points out in at least one of his lectures, had slavery been a central issue that the Founders had determined to address (to limit and/or to exterminate), then a Constitution acceptable to all the states might have proved impossible to achieve. What are the many cost/price ratios here? o Lastly, throughout there is a tension -- unaddressed directly but tangentially referred to often -- between "the citizens" of a democracy and "the type of decisions that sometimes must be made for the long term good." From my perspective, at least, this problem is central to many issues of our past, and remains so today with respect to major issues -- such as climate change -- over which our people seem divided. For me, the unanswered questions are: a) Is it even possible for most citizens to make informed decisions regarding the most important issues of our time, given the flood of competing "information" that exists; and b) if not, how do we retain meaningful "democratic" functioning while ensuring that someone has the authority -- and backing -- to make such decisions. POSTSCRIPT: As I came to write this review this morning, I learned that Dr. Fears passed away in 2012. Having just enjoyed his presence for 36 lectures, this came as something of a shock, for I had been looking forward to sending these very questions to him by email for his possible response. He was clearly a good man; to some, perhaps quaintly old-fashioned in some respects, but one of those persons who clearly believed that without a sound moral order we -- as individuals and as a people -- would soon be adrift.
Date published: 2016-02-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from History but too little wisdom I was disappointed by this course. It includes a wide sweep of historical information, much of which I’m unfamiliar with. But its discussion of the “wisdom of history” is, I think, poorly defined and misleading. He asks, and often repeats, these questions: “Is freedom a universal value? If so, then why is world history largely a story of tyranny, misery, and war?” The way he puts it implies that the questions are related, in a way they are not. What someone’s values are doesn’t determine what happens to them. People can want freedom, but nevertheless suffer from oppression. The wisdom of history I wanted to find here was a deep and thoughtful analysis of how and why things happen in the course of human events. Yes, strong individuals and ideas are influential; the collective will of the people sometimes changes the outcome. But Fears’s formulations are muddled and simplistic. By calling power and freedom “values,” he confuses the fundamental issues. Let’s take some examples. Freedom from want and hunger is certainly what everyone in the world wishes for. One might certainly say that economic sufficiency is a “universal value.” Yet poverty and starvation has been widespread throughout human history. It hasn’t been something people have chosen. Deprivation has had nothing to do with their values. Take another example: power. Yes, the desire to dominate others is an unfortunate human trait, exemplified in countless gory episodes in history. But again, calling it a “value” tells us nothing useful. Power is a brute fact, capable of extinguishing all the higher aspirations and feelings people can have. An illiterate teenager with an assault weapon can dominate a whole town, rendering all its civilized values irrelevant. Thugs and bullies have understood this truth from the beginning. Here’s the kind of “wisdom of history” that gets obscured by the imprecise definition of terms used in this course. We’ve got lots of history here, but not enough wisdom.
Date published: 2016-01-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Oversimplified and Misleading Prof. Fears subscribes to an outdated Great Man perspective of history and believes that there is absolute good and absolute evil. Those important men with whom he disagrees represent evil. For instance, he argues that the framers of the Constitution were statesmen because they set up a system based on principle in contrast to the Soviet Union. However, while you might disagree with communism as an ideology, it was an attempt to deal with tremendous injustice caused by the industrial revolution. It too was based on principle. This is but one example. He also oversimplifies the history he presents. I understand that the medium necessarily limits one's presentation, but there are many reasons for World War I and historians point to the validity of many of the theories. A failure of the leaders to understand history or the dynamics of power is low on that list. Generally speaking, I greatly enjoy the Great Courses lecture series, but this one is the worst I have encountered. I'm glad it wasn't my first exposure.
Date published: 2015-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Riveting... Absolutely loved this course. Professor Fears is a world of knowledge and a great story teller. After this I bought more of his lectures. Highly recommended. If only he wasn't cursed with that terrible voice.....J/K :)
Date published: 2015-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Great Teacher Who's Lectures Will Live Forever As I have already written elsewhere, my introduction to The Great Courses began years ago when I found Professor Fears lecture on books that made history and can change your life. He was right on both counts and made his case with humor and eloquence. This lecture series confirmed my faith in Professor Fears ability to not only draw important conclusions based on his study of world history but also provide common sense guidance for citizens of the 21st Century world. I am saddened by the fact that, after his death, there will be only a few of his great lectures left for me to add to my library. But, that said, I am happy to know that thanks to The Great Courses his works, like those of Aristotle, Herodotus, Cicero and all the rest of the historical heroes he honored, will be around for generations to come.
Date published: 2015-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Reckless conclusions, but always enjoyable This is the best of all the many courses I've taken here. I cannot praise it highly enough. A: NEGATIVE COMMENTS FROM OTHERS There are some negative reviews. If I had time, I would endeavour to explain how they are based on misunderstandings - but that is too big a job. I will just make a few general rebuttals of negative reviews. (1) Please get the facts straight. Prof. Fears makes 10 points in the introduction which are the lessons of history, then returns to these points throughout the following 35 lectures, explaining how they are demonstrated. Just as you cannot prove that black swans do not exist, he does not attempt to prove that every corresponding issue in history has proven his point. He shows you some key events in history which demonstrate the point. If you then think that the point is still weak, and can refer to other historical events which show the opposite, that is fine! He is just giving you some tools and a framework with which to try make sense of history, in a way which is more constructive than just treating it as a vast expanse of blancmange. There will always be counter examples - its a question of balance. This lecture series is not the venue for PROVING a thesis. Its a venue for offering useful insights and models. The proof would take a book or several, and is to be done elsewhere. (2) Following on from the above, covering all the lessons of history over 5000 years in 36 lectures, he has to summarise and abbreviate. He cannot provide all the backup argument and cases, in fact, has not even got time to fully pad the arguments. And I DON'T want a 72 or 144 part lecture series, which has all the extra stuff in. Please, when criticising, bear in mind that (a) he is short on time, and (b) it is uni-directional communication - he cannot engage with you in post-lecture questions. (3) Some people read his voice and expression as a sign of smugness or even arrogance. I did not read that at all. What I heard was joy, pure joy. This is a man that loves his subject and would happily talk to anyone from the US President to his apartment janitor about it. I feel that he would love nothing more than to engage with any negative opinion, and, reflecting back on his obviously vast knowledge, see how THAT opinion may be used to shed more light on the lessons of history. We are not dealing here with a bad attitude. In fact, far far from it. It is true, as some reviewer say, that its all very well retrospectively saying what mistakes were made, but the question is, now, in the present, which one of the many lessons from the past is the one which is applicable? Well, Prof. Fears is NOT providing an algorithm with which to construct some decision making machinery for political and military issues. That would be a wonderful thing, but perhaps not due till the end of this century. It would have been interesting if, at the end, he produced some matrix which showed how to balance and prioritise these various lessons across different subject areas, with caveats and so on - if such a thing is even possible. But frankly, that's a job for another time, or perhaps a 2nd lecture series :-) But I think that the fact that he cherry picked his examples in order to prove his 'lessons', does not negate the validity of his exposition, because he picked a lot of nice cherries. B: VALID CRITICISMS It is understandable that some readers are upset with Prof. Fears observations, because some of them are rather reckless, perhaps he got a bit carried away in the heat of the moment. For example in lecture 20, the Spanish won back their country from their Moorish overlords (it took them over 700 years). After this, in 1492, they expelled 200,000 Moors from Spain. Prof. Fears thinks this expulsion was a foolish waste of an "intelligent, industrious people", who would have been "perfectly willing to be loyal subjects of Ferdinand". That's like saying that the French should have kept their German overlords in the country, after the end of the 2nd world war - after all, they also were an intelligent and industrious people. It is ridiculous. Firstly, prof. Fears states that the Moors were tolerant. Yet 700 nobles who objected to their treatment were called to a banquet in Toledo in 807 - and promptly beheaded. In 818 in Cordoba, 300 Jews were crucified and 20,000 expelled. In 1066, the Jewish Vizier and 5000 were killed. Is this the kind of tolerance that Prof. Fears means? Secondly, one must obviously be wary of what is written by a Spanish people that lived under tyrannical overlords for 700 years. For example, the Jew Maimonides is taken as a sign of the Moors' tolerance of Jews at that time. But once he had escaped their empire he said "Never did a nation mo*lest, degrade, debase and hate us as much as they". So Maimonides, when under Moorish rule, naturally bit his tongue. Thirdly, let's not forget the famous maxim, that history is written by the victors. And of the victors, the famous jurist, Ibn Abdoun said "Jews and Christians must be detested and avoided". Then the victors can call this the Golden age of Andalusia. It is clear that there is a lot of material for this period that prof. Fears is not aware of - or has conveniently glossed over. By extension, I can presume that other readers are similarly irritated, when they, expert in other periods, know of strong counter evidence to prof. Fears's conclusions. However, I still fully recommend this course. I think, at least half the conclusions are rock solid. Of the others, the way they are presented, they act as useful platforms for exploring one's own position. C: POSITIVE OBSERVATIONS Just as I haven't time to cover the criticisms, I only have time to touch on the many positives, which I will do by way of two examples. The Romans had a similar problem with terrorism and piracy in the Mediterranean as we currently have around Somalia and the Indian ocean. They even foolishly took a young student as hostage for ransom on his gap year, a certain Julius Caesar no less. The Romans pondered the question of the efficacy of democracies when facing non-existential threats. Eventually the citizens tired of the Senate's ponderings, and gave absolute authority to Pompey to deal with the problem. Within 6 months, thanks to repeated crucifixions of the ones he caught, the problem had disappeared. Pompey's approach is more similar to the approach Russia has taken towards piracy. I found it very helpful to see that this current problem, seen as insoluble and intractable through the lens of current societal mores, has already been played out 2000 years ago. In contrast with the difficulty that democracies have in dealing with the non-existential threats, I found his explanation of the persistence of democracies when dealing with existential threats, to be very helpful. A tyrant when losing can agree a peace treaty which perhaps safeguards some of his own protection, whilst throwing the rest of the people under the bus. But a democracy would struggle to even begin that discussion, because the leader has no mandate, without conferring with other representatives. So it seems that the worst, most costly and most persistent wars, in my limited knowledge, appear to have been ones involving democracies. Again, one can protest the Iran-Iraq war. Well, perhaps that comes under another category of competing theologies? I don't know, but the point is, that this is a useful lens with which to start to examine this vast topic. In conclusion, Prof. Fears can be reckless in his conclusions sometimes, but his lectures are always enjoyable.
Date published: 2015-02-18
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Big disappointment! This is the one course that the Teaching Company produces that I have found to be poorly prepped, internally inconsistent and somewhat patronizing in presentation. I have purchased and enjoyed dozens of the Teaching Company courses, listening to several many times over. This one I could not stand to complete the first time I tried. Professor Fears seems to think that we need to be told what people meant to say, interpreting sources simplistically and solely to support his theme. Unfortunately, he is inconsistent in what he presents, occasionally contradicting himself. His general assertion is that "people make history," while at other times he asserts that one cannot successfully oppose the "wave of the future." Mostly, though, I objected to the manner in which he seemed to suggest that his listeners/viewers were not quite capable of forming their own opinions about the topics and themes he presents. I don't purchase college-level courses to be told what I should think about things. I buy them so that I can become more knowledgeable and thus better able to form my own conclusions. Sorry I purchased this product.
Date published: 2014-09-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Greatness of Professor J. Rufus Fears This course by Professor Fears has had a profound impact on me. That’s because Professor Fears made every lecture personal by explaining how the subject matter directly relates to you the listener and with how you will conduct the rest of your life, both personally and as a citizen, by keeping in mind the lessons of history. I did not come upon the Teaching Company courses by Professor Fears until after his passing in 2012. This fact has left me with a feeling of great sadness because he was the kind of person whom you would like to have personally known and befriended. The only way I could think of an appropriate way to express my feelings on the death of Professor Fears was to quote “The Phaedo” of Plato, where Phaedo, the beloved disciple of Socrates, and narrator of the dialogue, says of Socrates on his death: “Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.” (Translated from Attic Greek by Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893).
Date published: 2014-06-16
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A Simplistic View of History Professor Fears is a good story teller. However, his "lessons of history" are presented without any criteria regarding how they were chosen. Apparently, when things work out badly for the historical figure in question, s/he "failed to learn the lessons of history." In fact, history contains many, many potential lessons. Which ones are we to learn from? Other than to expound on his own choices, Professor Fears doesn't say. Why, for example, should Neville Chamberlain have learned "not to appease tyrants" instead of "war is hell" when appeasing Hitler (in Czechoslovakia) might have avoided repeating the unmitigated disaster of WW I, which imposed enormous costs, in blood and treasure, on Europe. I ask rhetorically, isn't there a lesson in the devastation of WW I? Furthermore, his lessons often seem to contradict one another. For example, at various points in the lecture series, he claims that democracies can never be successful empires? Really? The U.S.? The U.K.? His answer seems to be to define them out of the category of empires. No fair. All in all, this set of "history lessons" can only appeal to those who don't think deeply about history.
Date published: 2014-03-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Unique Prof's Intriguing if Questionable Thesis George Santayana. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Dr. Fears is the kind of professor students remember: A bit quirky with wonderful mannerisms, distinctive tonal patterns, and a certain smugness that is, frankly, quite charming. Our group of 10 or so retired folks who meet every Tuesday for a Great Course session was saddened when we learned of Prof. Fears death. A real loss to the "faculty" at The Great Courses. The "Wisdom of History" was an effort by Dr. Fears to take five of his courses and draw the fundamental lessons of each into a single program professing to unify the wisdom that historical experience imparts- in other words, he sought to give homage to the underlining expectation expressed in Santayana's oft repeat idea. Dr. Fears thesis is this: 1) Nations, like individuals, tend to move into one of two tracks oriented toward freedom or security. 2) Those who have chosen freedom tend to embrace democracy. 3) Those who have chosen security tend to embrace autocracy. The course goes on to draw examples of this from global history. Generally Dr. Fears sees the Middle East, China, Russia, and Latin America as seats of autocracy, and Europe and North America as seats of democracy. It is an intriguing thesis. It is also a bit too neat. Fears rolls a procrustean bed into the lecture room and then sets out his often arbitrary standard to which exact conformity in historical events is forced. NOW---- that IS what the course promises to do - to create a governing principle that is applicable across human history. SO-- anyone using this course should know that many historians would have significant problems with this as it tends to so smooth out the hills and valleys, the twists and turns in historical experience as to remove any realistic understanding of complex cause and effect. BUT- if the person watching this series has background in historical study or pulls in sources that provide it, and if the person brings a healthy skepticism to the series...then the course is wonderful. We have all had professors who seemed out to upset us, confuse us, challenge us, outrage us especially in the pursuit of objective standards. That is what Fears did. We meet for a little over an hour. 30 minutes for the video, 30 minutes for discussion. We often went over 30 minutes with fierce arguments raging. It was not uncommon for people to bring in copies of articles the next week that either contradicted or supported Fears' lesson from the previous week. For example: Dr. Fears claims that the American Revolution, the Civil War, WW II and the Cold War were confrontations between two opposing world views in which democracy proved superior to dictatorships in producing leaders worth of the challenge. It is a uniquely American perspective; a platform built on the concept of American Exceptionalism. That alone evokes a huge response- either in praise or condemnation. We heard a lot from both sides. Bottom line: Fears is above all, in this course, a great argument starter AND that is great fun and great for learning if civil discourse (even robust civil discourse) governs the experience.
Date published: 2014-02-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Don't Buy This If You Have "History of Freedom" This is an audio review. You should know that Professor Fear’s specifically states in the lectures that these are the lessons of history for America. I had previously listened to Professor Fear’s series on “The History of Freedom”, which I rated 5 stars. Unfortunately, this series had a lot of the same material and lessons, which is why I wouldn’t recommend it. However if you have not already listed to “The History of Freedom”, you might think this is a fine course. Each lecture could be a stand alone lesson, and he does a nice job of tying them together thematically. However, if a given topic is new to you, I think you will find 30 minutes is not enough to get much of an understanding of that historical event. If you are familiar with the topic, I think you will find there is not much new in the 30 minute lecture. Overall, I found the series to be storytelling with a lot of fluff that was not always to the point of what the lesson in wisdom was supposed to be. It often was too vague and repetitive. I really like Professor Fears and his other courses (the one on Churchill is fantastic), but this one was unnecessary for me.
Date published: 2013-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Where are we going now? Professor Fears takes you into a journey through space and time in the history of ideas, ideals and hubris. He has the faculty of retelling history as if it was a story, with characters and facts whose purpose is to make an impact in your life. His magnificent way of putting the puzzle together makes an indelible mark in your memory as you start discovering that he’s talking about you and the possibilities you have to contribute to the present and the future of human kind. The purpose of this course is not so much to memorize dates and names, but to make an impact in the way you perceive yourself as a contributor to history. I learned deeply of how superficial we humans are when making decisions that might change the direction of our destiny and those of others.
Date published: 2013-11-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Lessons of History This type of course is well suited to Dr. Fear's style. His presentation of historic themes and how they relate to modern events is interesting. The concept of "hubris" and arrogance and how they relate to the rise and fall of empires is something I never considered and it gave me a new perspective. The Middle East as the birthplace of empires and "where empires go to die" are ideas certainly relevant in today's turbulent world. I would have loved to have had a conversation with Dr. Fears about these issues and questions, but will have to be content to listen to his lectures. One of his best courses.
Date published: 2013-10-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Bedtime Stories The title of this course was intriguing and very appealing. Mr. Fears certainly has impressive credentials but the actual content of the course was appallingly simplistic, little more than a series of bedtime stories - better suited to children than college. Fears rarely sites the historical basis for the information he imparts nor does he refer to the work/opinions of other scholars. It's as if he just "knows" everything. I've purchased more than 15 Teaching Company courses and this is the only one that I've ever had to ask for my money back. I'm surprised that Fears has other courses but don't plan on buying any of them.
Date published: 2013-08-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from History as moral instruction This course is both interesting and somewhat frustrating: Professor Fears puts forth a strong thesis in the first lecture, wraps it up with some moral conclusions in lectures 35 and 36. Meanwhile, in the 33 intervening lectures, he sets out to prove his thesis by telling the story through his of his understanding of history. This course seems to have a two-fold purpose: (1) to prove the thesis that Professor Fears lays out in the first lecture – that the ten “laws of history” he identifies have their basis in – no pun intended – history. (2) The second purpose is for the individual – that the listener can get moral and life-enhancing instruction by the study and elucidation of history. Warning: Professor Fears is unabashedly speaking to America. This history is important to him because it can help “our country”. Additionally, you should know that he is a “great man” theorist. He states that history is made by individual men and women making choices and is not made by impersonal forces acting upon us. This can get tiresome when comparing to great “statesmen” like Winston Churchill to mere “politicians” like Neville Chamberlain or Clement Attlee. It seems that a historian ignores at his or her peril such “impersonal forces” as the Black Death in the late Middle Ages or the Industrial Revolution in the shaping the 19th century. I can recommend this course with reservations noted above for the following reason: very few courses have such a bold purpose. Most courses seem to be designed merely to give us facts and educate us. Professor Fears does not give a balanced approach to history, but also it's not entirely biased either. His passion for what he is teaching comes through, but I cannot help feeling I’m not getting the whole story. I have the video version of this course. There are no visual aids to justify the use of video – get the audio download or the CDs.
Date published: 2013-01-22
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