Sound Mind

Podcasts To Get You Thinking

Our new Daily Scholar columnist reviews the best educational offerings

By James McWilliams | November 26, 2018
Flickr/Gavin Whitner
Flickr/Gavin Whitner

About 70 million Americans listen to podcasts. While we sometimes tune out for mindless entertainment, we also tune in to become more educated. Indeed, out of all the genres of podcasts—sports, technology, news, gaming—educational podcasts are among the most popular.
In 1835, Tocqueville famously identified America as an anti-intellectual land of pragmatic action that “has enclosed thought within a formidable fence.” But he never bargained for an intellectual pursuit that we could consume on the go, while driving, exercising, or shopping. In its democratic approach to cultivating the life of the mind, the educational podcast tears down Tocqueville’s fence and sets free a world of ideas. In this monthly column, I will help listeners find the brightest stars in this exciting new galaxy of scholarly thought.

Revisionist History

As a writer, Malcolm Gladwell roots for the underdog. In his book David and Goliath, pluck, guile, and faith become weapons of the weak, the stones in David’s sling that pierce the Achilles’ heel of power. But as a person, Gladwell couldn’t care less about the underdog. Last spring onstage at the 92nd Street Y, he said that wanting the underdog to win was “a form of moral weakness.” When the Davids of the world lose, he explained, they are only mildly disappointed because they expected to lose. But when the Goliaths lose, they are hugely disappointed because, poor things, they expected to win.

Welcome to Malcolm Gladwell: entertaining, counterintuitive, curious, and just flippant enough to suggest that he’s only poking fun. Of course, his reasoning for dismissing the underdog not only undermines the basic premise of his best-selling book, but it’s also terrible logic. Adam Grant, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who conducted the Y interview, was incredulous. “There’s so much wrong with your reasoning there,” he said, “I don’t know where to start.”

One might begin with a 2017 Paris Review discussion between Gladwell and fellow writer, Michael Lewis. Lewis noted that critics often accuse Gladwell of cherry picking cases to support overblown hypotheses. “Michael, you’re being a killjoy,” Gladwell retorted. “Look, people say this. Maybe it’s true, but there’s a certain class of critical reaction out there that comes from people that are determined at all costs not to enjoy themselves.” And there you have what makes Gladwell tick: truth should never interfere with a good story.

Such a disposition makes him ready-made for podcasting. Gladwell’s Revisionist History promises to reinterpret “something overlooked” and “something misunderstood” to expose hidden and unexpected aspects of human behavior. The episodes, which often feature impossibly cool figures such as Jack White (opining on Elvis, no less), glue themselves to the brain because they are produced with rare savvy and attention to our desire to find novelty in the mundane.

And yet—whether the episode is about a scientist whose career was derailed when the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) misinterpreted a single word in a grant proposal; Brian Williams’s mistaken memory about being downed by gunfire in a Chinook helicopter in Iraq; Elvis’s inability to sing “Are You Lonesome Tonight” without losing total control of himself; or a Vietnam War general’s determination to end Mexican migration to the United States in the 1970s—the ultimate explanation for the mystery at hand gets reduced to something far too esoteric for any legitimate killjoy to accept.

Alternative (and less entertaining) explanations are always close at hand. Gladwell attributes Elvis’s habit of bungling the lyrics on the talking section of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” to parapraxis—a Freudian slip—supposedly triggered by his breakup with Priscilla Presley. How intriguing, one thinks. But a more commonplace reason (one that’s actually suggested by Jack White and ignored by Gladwell) is that switching from singing to talking as the song’s rhythm moves forward is hard to do—a verbal leap-from-the-train that Elvis, for whatever Elvis-related reason, could not consistently execute. There’s something romantic in thinking that an emotionally distraught Elvis lost control when he had to say, very slowly, “Honey, you lied when you said you loved me.” But nothing other than Gladwell’s insistence supports such a conclusion.

In another episode, Gladwell elicits indignation when he chronicles the Office of Research Integrity’s attack, in the late 1980s, on the pioneering work of a Georgetown pediatrics professor named Margit Hamosh.

The ORI (then known as the Office of Scientific Integrity) failed to realize that when Hamosh used the “presently” in a grant application, she did not mean “right now,” and accused her of fraud. The charge seemed absurd, and was later overturned. But when he explains why ORI was so eager to trash Hamosh’s work, Gladwell opts for the “gee whiz” over the sensible. He attributes the charge to mass hysteria caused by a distrust of science. No evidence supports this answer, nor was there any evidence in 1993, when Gladwell wrote about Hamosh in The Washington Post and provided a more made-for-newspaper explanation: “ORI wanted scientists to be perfect.” A different deal, that.

I realize that by highlighting these examples of overreach, I’m participating in an old cottage industry—that “certain class of critical reaction,” as Gladwell put it to Lewis—of exposing Gladwell as an intellectual hack. But to stop there, as Gladwell might say, would be to miss something overlooked and misunderstood. If Revisionist History did an episode on Revisionist History, what would it discover?

Strip away the music, the famous guests, and the addictive enthusiasm, then zone in on Gladwell’s genuine curiosity about human behavior, and something critical— and very generous—becomes clear. Gladwell, indeed, does not root for the underdog. He does not root for the power elite. He reaches for idiosyncratic explanations because his research relies on that cloistered force of subversion whom society too often dismisses: the scholar. Revisionist History revises history to show that if only we listened to the smart people, bookish and clever types willing to disappear into the wilderness of curiosity and return with an elegant answer, we’d live in a much better world. Gladwell is an ambassador to the nerds. The more we give him, the closer he’ll come to getting it right. Meanwhile, enjoy the ride.

In Our Time

British author, broadcaster, and parliamentarian Melvyn Bragg, whose voice drips with an Oxford drawl so notable that his Wikipedia page includes a recording of it, orchestrates a near-perfect podcast on the history of ideas. In Our Time, produced by the BBC, invariably sticks to a roundtable format that, in the 45 minutes per episode, tackles topics as varied as the Mexican-American War, Persepolis, fungi, Cicero, and cephalopods.

Bragg relies on three in-studio experts to illuminate these issues with insight and wit. Especially appealing is not only the learnedness of the esteemed scholars, but also the way Bragg, who was born to working-class parents, brooks zero academic pomp, quietly demanding that his highly polished guests, no matter how stratospheric their education, drop the act and speak like real people. The minute some don pedantically digresses, Bragg comes at him like a stern schoolmaster.

With all scholarly pretenses removed, something charming happens: the guests express their ideas with childlike enthusiasm. They’re free! It’s consequently rare for an episode to drag. But it happens: the episode on the medieval Christian mystic, Margery Kempe, is surprisingly dull for such an engrossing topic. More typical of this long-running podcast’s brilliance is the episode on The Iliad, which made me want to sit down and, in a fit of pleasure, howl.

The Partially Examined Life

Although it explores a similar range of heady topics (albeit with a heavier emphasis on philosophy), The Partially Examined Life could not be more different in tone or approach from the more formal In Our Time. The podcast consists of four guys—Mark Linsenmayer, Seth Paskin, Wes Alwan, and Dylan Casey—whose erudition feels feral. Imagine a Great Books seminar on Kant, Spinoza, Dostoyevsky, or Richard Rorty migrating to the pub and continuing into the wee hours, and you’ll have some sense of the show’s seductive combination of heft and flippancy.

Each episode usually centers on a single text that the hosts discuss in a collaborative (and sometimes combative) manner. They are in no rush—episodes can approach two hours. But the magic is in the meandering. What occurs is not a concise lecture or, as with Bragg, a finely choreographed interview, but rather four careful fellowswho “were at one point set on doing philosophy for a living but then thought better of it”—earnestly working together to figure out the original meaning of an abstruse text. For every interpretive point that lands, three or four miss. The careful listener knows that this is the madness to this method of seeking truth: in collaboration with others.

The Lonely Palette

This podcast, which seeks to hand art history back “to the masses, one painting at a time,” is a one-woman crusade of admirable ambition. Tamar Avishai, an art historian and a lecturer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, wants to liberate famous works of art from the snooty club of experts and convince the average (read: insecure) museum-goer that “what you see is what you’re supposed to see.” Having thus granted permission, Avishai takes our hand and guides us with mellifluous assurance through a range of aesthetic wonderlands, introducing objects ranging from a lusty Fragonard painting to Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipse to Marcel Duchamp’s iconic urinal, among many other pieces. Each 30-minute episode starts with random museum visitors making observations about the work Avishai wants to explore; then comes a friendly historical sketch of the objet d’art’s context, followed by an often brilliant exegesis of the piece itself.

Avishai occasionally succumbs to the rhetorical loftiness she seeks to avoid. (“The transition from the dramatic monumentality of the Baroque to the more playful intimacy of the Rococo style happened loosely, with no discernible friction point” is just one example.) But when it comes to the sheer power of aesthetic interpretation, as well as the joy that rewards close observation, she offers beautifully crafted narratives that will make your next museum visit an experience driven by an eager confidence, rather than an obligation to feel cultured.

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