412-year-old London college gives anyone a free education online

Ah, Europe! They really know how to cater to the greater good of society. They'll even give you a free education just because it's a nice thing to do.

Gresham College, sponsored by the City of London, has been going for more than 410 years, based on the work of the Antwerp Bourse. Gresham retains eight professors on three-year tenures in classic disciplines like divinity, math, medicine, law, and music. Christopher Wren, the guy who designed the greatest of London's church spires, once taught astronomy here.

Funded by tax money, the College regularly engages academics from around the world, too, who plan their presentations for months. It even posts its past events online through transcripts, video, PowerPoint files, and audio recordings. These teachers are true white-glove, ivory-tower Ph.Ds--and yes, they're often as woolly-haired and boring as a university professor you pay back 15 years of student loans to hear drone on in person.

Because society as a whole benefits when everyone's smarter, the entire purpose is to share knowledge. That's done through free hour-long lectures, about a dozen each month except in July and August, when the load is lighter. Topics are as varied as the ones paying college students get: subjects include revelations of Lewis Carroll's little-known contributions as an Oxford mathematician, a comparison of the British and American Constitutions, a dissection of the soundtrack of Hitchcock's Psycho, and the physics behind locating other solar systems.

You can't actually get a degree here, which is too bad for those who are trying to build their resumes. But the upside is you don't have to actually enroll, either. You don't even have to go to London. You can attend, or not--it's up to you.

And you can even do it online, because most of its lectures are kept online for the edification of the masses. There's video, transcript and audio available for stuff going back to 2001, all for free. That sure beats the Discovery Center or the Learning Annex.

So you won't get a sheepskin, but you can learn something to dine out on or to impress your friends at a cocktail party. For free. After that, it's up to you to make a buck by winning Jeopardy!.

It's really hard to hate a society that will pay to educate you just because it thinks you're worth it.
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