The Opening of the American Mind: How Educational Podcasts Are Making Us Smarter Citizens

Doug Metzger’s Literature and History podcast—a comprehensive historical overview of the literature of the Anglophone world—has already garnered 500,000 downloads. Does his podcast provide a blueprint to intellectualizing our populace?

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who toured the United States for nine months in the 1830s, may have been the first to publicly vilify America’s so-called “anti-intellectualism.” He wrote, “I know of no country in which, speaking generally, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.” The majority of our citizens, he concluded, “has enclosed thought within a formidable fence.”

Americans hardly disagreed. From Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life to Lionel Trilling’s The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Tocqueville’s assessment has echoed throughout history as a quality endemic to the vacuous American character. This sort of philistine pride has even entered the White House: We now have a president who claims he he does not have time to read.

The assessment has carried traction for a reason. In a nation always on the go, it does seem as if the most serious intellectual production and consumption has been confined to the cloisters of higher education, where an elite professoriate soaks in high ideas in paneled seminar rooms safe from the hurly-burly of daily life. But what if a technology was able to bridge the gap, accommodating our culture’s hyperkinetic habits while also bringing to it gems of intellectual wealth from the ivory tower?

To a large extent this is exactly what the best educational podcasts—which stress learning for the sake of learning—are doing. There are many valuable lists out there highlighting the sweetest cream of the podcast crop, but for me the podcast that stands out for its intellectual rigor, accessibility, and entertainment value is Doug Metzger’s Literature and History—a comprehensive historical overview of the literature of the Anglophone world.

The fact that a seemingly esoteric podcast covering subjects ranging from Ancient Egyptian wisdom literature to Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy to late Latin poetry can boast 500,000 downloads (after fewer than 50 episodes) forces us to rethink Tocqueville’s enduring characterization of the torpid American mind. Perhaps the pragmatic bustle of American life has actually never been all that hostile to “useless” knowledge—but only unsure about how to integrate it into our hectic schedule. Metzger and his ilk, armed with a microphone and some knowledge, may have solved that problem and, in turn, called into question Tocqueville’s long-established observation.

Metzger’s academic specialization is 19th-century American literature (his love of Walt Whitman is manifest in the grass clipping from Walt’s tomb tacked to his living room wall). After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of California–Davis in 2011, Metzger planned to enter into academia. Things didn’t turn out that way: His wife’s job kept them in central California, and Metzger chose to work as a technical writer for a software company. With one foot in the trenches of scholarly life, and the other in the distant land of tech writing, Metzger decided—after listening to a lot of podcasts while running a lot of marathons—to try and bring these disparate worlds together. And so Literature and History was born.

What’s most evident when listening to Metzger’s podcast—with shows ranging from 90 minutes to over two hours—is the polished nature of his work. Much as the smoothest prose masks hours of tortured labor, so Metzger’s seamless presentation of complex texts, undertaken with humor and musical accompaniment, obscures countless hours of perfectionist-driven toil. Or maybe not so countless—when I spoke to Metzger on the phone, it was clear he’d done some counting. He explained that a typical podcast requires 40 to 80 hours of reading, another 40 hours of writing, and about eight to 12 hours crafting the original songs to which he closes most episodes (he plays several instruments, including the mandolin, guitar, banjo, oboe, and piano). Never has the phrase labor of love been so apt.

Doug Metzger.

Literature and History also works well as an educational podcast because it assumes no prior knowledge of the material while, somehow, managing to enlighten those who already know something about it. This balancing act is especially evident with the 10 episodes Metzger dedicates to the Old Testament. If you came at this set of podcasts, as I did, with minimal knowledge of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and so on, you might very well find yourself setting aside time to read the world’s most influential book. As Metzger understands it, this is the purest kind of victory. “That quotidian dark jacketed tome, a presence in a great many households, a talking point in so many political conversations,” he says, “is hardly ever actually opened.”

But even if you know the Old Testament fairly well, Metzger will hold your attention with his uniquely literary approach to biblical interpretation. His ability to make connections between, say, the linguistic devices in Psalms and the history of poetry, the creation myths in Gilgamesh and Genesis, and the tethered thread between Job and John Calvin—to note just a few examples—fosters an ongoing sense that the past is never past, but vibrantly alive an the ongoing, ever-thrilling aesthetic moment.

Metzger says he’s always been a teacher. He attributes his ability to walk a fine line between content that’s overly academic and content that’s too general to “a lot of experience at the helm of a classroom.” (He taught undergraduates while working on his Ph.D. at UC–Davis and, for a year, at the Oregon Institute of Technology.) He further notes that he has had “a lot of different kinds of jobs” that have exposed him to “a lot of analytical people” whom he senses have a particular taste for a certain kind of literary knowledge. It pleases Metzger that he reaches a fair number of high school students (who, one imagines, are seeking a primer on books they’d rather not read), as well as engineers, software developers, and otherwise non-literary specialists who, however unexpectedly, know that it can enrich your life to know a thing or two about Homer, Sophocles, and Pindar.

Metzger appreciates the unique potential of the podcast to enable him—and others (his favorite is the BBC’s In Our Time)—to bring knowledge to regular people. “As we both know as consumers of educational podcasts,” Metzger tells me, “you can squish them into the cracks of your busy schedule.” He even thinks that the podcast should play a larger role in higher education itself, acting as a conduit from the ivory tower into the intellectually hungry mainstream. “I would like to see academic departments get into this a bit more,” he says. As for his own work at Literature and History, there appears to be no end in sight. “It’s exhausting sometimes, but I have no plans on stopping.” In that intellectual wasteland known as America, he notes, “the listeners keep on coming.”

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