I’m going to let you in on a secret, but please keep it between us (and the entire Internet): if I wasn’t a writer, I would want to be a chef. Even though I take approximately 70% of my meals in restaurants and haven’t been to the grocery store in months, there is something about the panache and creativity of fine cooking that appeals to me. That being said, I have taken zero steps toward this goal as cooking classes are expensive and I don’t exactly have the time to be whisked away to Le Cordon Bleu for intensive instruction. So, perhaps I am destined to continue burning macaroni and cheese on my electric stove forever. But, perhaps not; if education startup MasterClass is as good as its word, I could be whipping up gourmet meals like a pro by this time next week.
MasterClass – which made headlines when it secured more than $35 million in venture capital – operates under a very simple concept: anyone can learn anything if taught by unquestioned subject matter experts. Want to learn to play tennis? Who better than perennial champion Serena Williams to show you the ropes? Steve Martin was one of my favorite comedians growing up, starring in such classics as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Now in a matter of hours, I can learn everything there is to know about comedy at his feet. The proposition of such a straightforward short cut to success is damn tempting, and many are lining up to pay for it.
On the surface, MasterClass is sexy as hell. Each class is showcased with a video introduction with all the gloss and production quality of a Hollywood movie trailer. Soaring musical scores and slick transitions are voiced over by the instructor of each course, full of assurances that you are only hours from greatness. Among the celebrities featured in the current course catalog are Grammy Award winners Usher and Christina Aguilera, novelist James Patterson, actors Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey, filmmaker Werner Herzog, and – most relevant to my daydreams – master chef Gordon Ramsay. Each course runs a completely manageable five hours, and is priced at a reasonable $90. Potential students are ensured their courses include extensive practical lessons and Q&A sessions, although one can hardly imagine these A-List personalities sitting down and answering questions from Joe Blow from Drinkwater, Kansas. And while these classes are meant to be informative and comprehensive, the previews for each lead me to believe one is more likely to receive five hours of back patting and unrelatable advice from people who have already made it.
The motivation behind MasterClass is noble to say the least; as technology changes, companies such as this will need to keep pushing the boundaries of how we learn and engage with our world. One investor went as far as to call MasterClass a “modern day Library of Alexandria” – a statement which makes made my eyes roll out of the back of my skull. However, I am reminded of the old adage, “Those who cannot do, teach.” Perhaps it then follows that those who do, aren’t necessarily the best teachers. There is a reason coaches and instructors are hardly ever as famous as their pupils. The individuals picked for these instructional videos have spent tens of thousands of hours honing their crafts. Are we really to believe that they have been somehow able to boil down that experience into a handful of hours and create anything more than a glorified TED Talk? Hardly.
Everyone learns differently, and I am in no position to judge how beneficial a given student may find MasterClass. However, until proven otherwise, I will be keeping my $90 and investing in a cookbook instead for a fraction of the cost. Who am I kidding? I’ll probably just order a pizza.
James Stuart is a failed astronomer, paleontologist, and amateur beekeeper turned writer. Once described as “enervating, but fun,” his interests are varied – including things, stuff, places, and events. He is on a lifelong pursuit to know as much as possible about everything, and will ensure you always have something interesting to talk about at the bar.