The American education systems tends to fail students in myriad ways, requiring continual education after the fact to learn the truth behind what we were taught in history, art, science, language, literature, and math. Privileged gatekeepers deciding who and what gets taught can result in the denial of diverse voices and perspectives.
Podcasts radically shift the dynamics around who gets to teach, and who gets to learn. A lot of the most beloved and popular shows, like Radiolab and Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, basically boil down to what you wish your science or history class had been like in the first place. Many others, like 1619 and You’re Wrong About, aim to correct the misinformation in many accepted cultural narratives from both our near and distant pasts.
Now, obviously, podcasts can’t replace a world-class, bonafide, IRL, teacher-to-student relationship. But they can teach us more than a few vital lessons. Here are a few of our most educational favorites.
While Vox is known for explaining complicated ideas in easily understandable ways, it’s new podcast Unexplainable flips that premise on its head. Instead of demystifying the daily information onslaught, Unexplainable sits with the most mystifying unknowns of all time. From questioning whether everything we thought we knew about psychology is wrong to the quest to understand what the hell dark matter is, Unexplainable teaches us to get comfortable with the idea that human knowledge has many limits. And that’s kinda awesome.
2. You’re Wrong About
“You’re Wrong About is doing God’s work by correcting the record on everything we misremember or misunderstand in our collective cultural memory.Each week, journalists Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes debunk popular myths, misconceptions, and mischaracterizations of figures like Tonya Harding and Marie Antoinette, or topics like sex trafficking and events like the O.J. Simpson trial.” [From our Best Feminist Podcasts roundup.]
“As all-encompassing as it is powerfully specific and personal, 1619 is the story of modern America — and the people who built it through blood, sweat, tears, and hope. It’s a version of the story a great many of us never hear, purposefully kept hidden in the margins of U.S. history books. But 1619 isn’t just a podcast about the history of slavery as the genesis of almost every aspect of American society and culture today.
This isn’t just a sobering lesson, or hard pill to swallow. By weaving the historical with the personal and the poetic, Nikole Hannah-Jones (alongside other guest hosts) paints a viscerally captivating portrait of Black Americans’ lived experience, and all the simultaneous struggle, strength, oppression, ambition, pain, and humor needed to survive. 1619 is a story about race and the inequalities embedded into a system predicated on its conceit. But above all it’s a story about us, the people we were then and still are now.” [From our roundup.]
4. Encyclopedia Womannica
“History class often paints a portrait of the world that excludes about half of its population. That’s what Wonder Media Network’s Encyclopedia Womannica sets out to fix, by releasing 5- to 10-minute episodes on women who made history in a certain field. Each month focuses on a different area of expertise, which most recently included activism and music.” [From our Best Feminist Podcasts roundup.]
5. You Are Not That Smart
There’s a kind of fallacy that comes with being knowledgable or well-educated: You can start to think you know everything. In reality, human knowledge is always flawed, a work in progress rather than an end goal in itself. That’s the backbone of this psychology podcast, which dives into the ways we think and why they’re often faulty or misunderstood.
6. 99% Invisible
Invisible forces increasingly rule our world, and this legacy podcast is determined to reveal exactly how and why. Host Roman Mars uncovers a different facet of the hidden world of design in every episode, whether it’s the user experience of an app on your phone or your entire home’s architecture.
“NPR’s Peabody-winning, textbook example of rich, expertly-produced documentary podcast-making was started by Jad Abumrad way back in 2002. Hosted by Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, Radiolab tasks itself broadly with ‘investigating a strange world.’ It’s constantly referred to in the same breath as their friends at , but tends toward the more science-related topics.” [From our Best Science Podcasts roundup.]
8. Every Little Thing
Like the teacher who encouraged you to ask all the questions, Gimlet’s Every Little Thing seeks to answer listeners’ questions about, well, everything. Whether it’s trying to determine if a listener’s very specific early childhood memory is real, or investigating why we cry, there’s no quest for understanding too small or too big for this podcast.
9. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
Dan Carlin is the history teacher we all wish we’d had in grade school, able to turn the most fascinating and dramatic episodes of our past into multi-part epic sagas. Tuning into Hardcore History‘s three hour-long behemoth episodes transports your imagination. As informative as they are enthralling, each deep dive can transform what you thought you knew about both ancient and modern history.
10. Lolita Podcast
“The influence of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita can’t be overstated. From fashion to music to film to sexual expression itself, the novel’s impact on society far exceeds literary circles, affecting the mainstream in ways you may not even be aware of. You don’t need to have read Lolita — a cautionary tale about a predator grooming, kidnapping, and repeatedly raping a child — to be riveted by the podcast, which is more focused on tracing its ripple effects on the zeitgeist.
Comedian, podcaster, and writer Jamie Loftus wrestles with this tangled nexus of significance in a society that perpetually sexualizes young girls. Weaving in her own personal experiences and analysis with expert interviews and source materials, Loftus leaves no stone unturned — no matter how uncomfortable. Diving headfirst into a minefield of impossible yet crucial questions, Lolita Podcast delivers nuanced perspectives that only unfurl more layers of complexity rather than offering easy answers.” [From our Best Podcasts of 2020 roundup.]
11. Grammar Girl
Delving into the ins and outs of grammar can be pretty boring sometimes. (Apologies to our editors.) But this beloved show from host Mignon Fogarty brings a much-needed lack of judgment, accessibility, and fun to learning about the nitty-gritty of the English language. It’s an essential resource for writers of all sorts, diving into not only the rules but the historical and cultural contexts behind them.
“If you want to dig into the niches of study that professionals choose to dedicate their lives to, check out Ologies with science correspondent and humorist Alie Ward. Each episode, Ward takes on a different ‘ology,’ from conventional ones like and , to more niche ones like (the study of kissing).” [From our Best Science Podcasts roundup.]
13. Planet Money
“Planet Money’s success lies in how it tackles complex subjects with great storytelling. A financial instrument like a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) may sound impossibly boring, but Planet Money routinely makes these types of things the heart of a thrilling narrative. The team continues to explore the financial collapse, but they’ve expanded their scope to include all aspects of the global economy.” [From our .]
Alternatively, try NPR’s Indicator: “Its more compact, daily sister podcast is a knockout. But for those a little less interested in talk of money stuff, NPR’s is a great gateway drug. Tackling smaller yet still robust and integral stories related to work, business, and the economy, you’ll be surprised by how much crucial information you can gain in just 10 minutes.” [From our .]
14. Hidden Brain
“NPR’s popular podcast hosted by social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam delves into the recesses of the human mind, and questions why the hell we do and think the things we do. Vedantam conducts excellent, well-researched interviews with experts on complex topics that are made simple to understand, and will have you really getting in your own head.” [From our Best Science Podcasts roundup.]
“No matter how much you think you know about Hurricane Katrina, Floodlines reveals how America has only reached the surface of reckoning with this deep national wound. Through interviews with survivors and reporting that addresses the media misinformation and government incompetence around the catastrophe, host Vann R. Newkirk II shows how the real storm that devastated New Orleans was the same one that’s been brewing in America for centuries.” [From our Best New Podcasts of 2020 roundup.]
16. The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
“Happiness is a tricky goal, especially when we think about it in terms of things that will finally make us happier. But no ‘thing’ can make you happy except yourself, and achieving that state of mind takes daily work. That’s what Dr. Laurie Santos, who studied the science of happiness at Yale and has a doctorate in psychology, makes clear in her podcast tackling the wide range of questions about how to live a life with more joy in spite of, well, all of it. While many other podcasts tackle similar topics, Dr. Santos sets this one apart by taking them to panels of experts and researchers in psychology, behavioral science, and more.” [From our Best Self-Improvement Podcasts roundup.]
17. Nice White Parents
“Nice White Parents, released on July 30, is a five-part limited series from [Serial,] the team that redefined podcasting . Instead of complex true-crime cases, however, Nice White Parents puts a different criminal on trial: the white liberalism that has helped perpetuate the segregation of public schools in America for decades under the guise of progressive ideals. This American Life producer Chana Joffe-Walt tells the story through an on-the-ground investigation into the School for International Studies (SIS), a New York City public school that was predominantly serving students of color.
That is, until a flood of white parents who couldn’t get their kids into preferred white schools instead decided to enroll them there, causing it to become a battleground of racial tensions and inequalities. It’s a story that comes from a personal place for Joffe-Walt. She began reporting on it after shopping around for schools as a new parent herself, only to discover she was part of a larger history of white parents who have shaped our public school education system into what it is today — which is to say, a system that overwhelming and repeatedly fails students of color.” [From our .]
18. Philosophize This!
Philosophy, aka that insufferable elective you skipped each week in college, can get a bad rap for being elitist and impenetrable. But Stephen West makes Philosophize This! precisely for those who want to delve into the nuanced ideas of our great thinkers, only without all the BS. Meant to be consumed somewhat in chronological order, you’ll gain a working, buildable knowledge of everything from media theory studies to multiple theories of justice.
19. Making Gay History
“History isn’t often told through a gay lens and Making Gay History looks to change that, telling the stories of the people who fought for decades for LGBTQ civil rights. Many of them have largely gone uncelebrated — until now.” [From our Best History Podcast roundup.]
20. The Experiment
The American experiment, often repackaged as the American dream, is one of the biggest sources of miseducation in our country. In this WNYC Studios and Atlantic collaboration, host Julia Longoria applies the ideals of America’s past that were held to be self-evident, then measures them up against our current reality. Bringing the high ideals of this country’s founding to everyday experiences, The Experiment can even find lessons in trash reality TV shows like 90 Day Fiance.
Art history isn’t for everyone, but curator and art history student Jennifer Dasal is definitely the one who could spark your interest. With a distinct theme for every season, she brings what might otherwise be dry material to life by telling the strangest and most enthralling stories behind the art. Season 9, which is all about cursed art, feels especially right for the general vibe of the past several years.
“OK, first a disclaimer: Blowback is an unapologetically left-wing podcast. Like very left-wing. If that’s not cool with you, then it’s not the podcast for you. It tells the story of the Iraq War from that leftist point of view, and it’s both fascinating and necessary. Much of the Iraq War, as the American public knew it, was laundered through a right-wing government, and it was some time before anyone was open to admitting the disastrous war was just that. Blowback details how horrific and wrongheaded the Iraq War was, how its tentacles still shape America today, and how few consequences befell the people who sold it to the public.” [From our Best History Podcast roundup.]
23. Coffee Break Spanish (or other languages)
Not everyone vibes with language learning apps like Duolingo. Alternatively, what’s great about podcasts like Coffee Break from Radio Lingua Network is just how casual it feels — digestible enough to compliment your coffee break (as the name suggests). The lesson plans in each successive season increase in difficulty, with Season 1 being for true beginners. But the podcast really sings in its travel log episodes, applying those lessons to a conversational grasp of the language. There’s also versions in French, Italian, German, Chinese, and Swedish available too.
24. Curiosity Daily
“Curiosity Daily is kind of like the r/TodayILearned subreddit but in podcast form. Every weekday, you can learn something new from hosts Cody Gough, Ashley Hamer, and Natalia Reagan. They offer 10- to 15-minute summaries of interesting, research-backed news and facts relevant to our everyday lives from the science, psychology, and technology fields.” [From our .]
Let’s be real: many of us skipped the reading when we were in school, only to regret it later on. That’s why Spotify’s list of original audiobooks, some even voiced by A-list actors like Hilary Swank, is a great treasure trove of educational audio. Currently, it offers many of the classics for free, like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and the memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. They even have a separate podcast for unpacking the literature called Sitting with the Classics. You can check out the full collection here.
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