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With podcasts, I listen and learn

As I prepare meals at home, my constant kitchen companion is a man. No, not Emeril, Bobby Flay or my husband. The man whose voice fills my kitchen with lively scholarship on history, philosophy, science and religion is Melvyn Bragg.

You may never have heard of the 71-year-old Bragg, but he is a fixture in Britain, where he's known as the author of dozens of books and was host of a popular arts program on television before launching the show I can't get enough of: In Our Time, on BBC Radio 4. His broadcasts are available in the United States as free podcasts at; and they are making me smarter while I chop onions and celery.

A recent program on Moses Maimonides expounded upon the Jewish medieval scholar for 45 scintillating minutes. Through Bragg and his panel of two professors of philosophy and one professor of Arabic studies, I learned about Maimonides' history — how he ended up in Cairo after being expelled as a child from 12th century Spain for being non-Muslim — and about his primary influences that include the teachings of Aristotle and the Arabian philosopher Al-Farabi.

Bragg then turns the discussion directly to Maimonides' The Guide for the Perplexed, which is described as a response to someone struggling to reconcile faith with burgeoning scientific knowledge. According to the program's guests, Maimonides tells "the perplexed" that much of scripture is allegorical, not literal — a controversial assertion at the time and, in some quarters, even today.

This may sound abstruse, but it's not. Bragg noted in a newspaper column last year that his guests are "teaching academics" who are experienced at bringing high concepts and difficult ideas into lay language.

It's like having a dinner party with brilliant friends who are told they must absolutely stick to one subject but should explore it fully.

Lately, these are some of the subjects that have been served up along with my lemony shrimp scampi with linguini: an exploration into the age of the universe, the Taiping Rebellion in 19th century China — not just the story of the revolt but what ideas motivated it — and an entire show devoted to metaphor, from medieval literature to Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf. Each program includes a panel of three academics with peerless credentials, usually from top British universities.

Bragg describes his conversations as "a thousand miles from soundbites." They are also a thousand miles from celebrity gossip and bloviating talking heads, and even from what passes as intellectually stimulating broadcasting in the United States: Diane Rehm, Terry Gross and Ira Flatow.

As far as I know, the United States has nothing that compares with this "history of ideas" that pulls in more than 2 million British listeners every week. What started in 1998 as an experiment in what Bragg calls programming "as intelligent as I could cope with and as eclectic as we could dare to be" just celebrated its 500th episode with a show on free will.

And true to Bragg's brief, the program was a fascinating discourse on the competing concepts of determinism versus free will. The show explored the views of philosophers from Immanuel Kant to the compatibilism of David Hume. Bragg's guests grappled with whether we have control over our actions or are born to be how we are with inevitable outcomes, and how that affects moral responsibility. Modern neuroscience was also brought in, as was religious thought on predestination.

This is a show for people who miss the intellectual whirl of college but don't have the time or inclination to go back to school. Why isn't there something like this on our side of the pond? With hundreds of cable channels, can't one replicate Bragg's model? Or does that only come with public financing, like the BBC, and — for the moment — public radio in the United States? (See above my mild critique of public radio offerings.)

Soon, I plan on making my sumptuous chicken with okra and Indian spices, while Bragg digs into the history of the medieval university." It's a toss-up as to which will be more satisfyingly consumed.

With podcasts, I listen and learn 03/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 19, 2011 4:31am]
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