The TED Approach to Education

by Mike Helsby on 2014-03-02
As TEDxUW quickly approaches, and the various efforts involved in producing and promoting the event near conclusion, I find myself reflecting on the nature of TED itself. It’s strange to think how much and how quickly the TED idea has grown in the public conscience in such a short time. TED-talks have only been available online since 2006, but they’ve quickly become one of the primary sources by which we become informed on a massive variety of subjects pertaining to the current state and direction of human culture. Any regular or semi-regular viewer of TED-talks will testify to a wide range of positive aspects about the conferences, such as their inclusivity, their diversity, and their intellectual benefits. But it occurs to me that a TED-talk has much in common with a classroom lecture, specifically with regards to structure and intention. By this I mean that both are ostensibly comprised of an “expert” “lecturing” “students” (take the quotation marks how you will) with the intention of informing and inspiring the audience. I think it’s fair to say that most of us recognize one of these institutions as coming much closer to achieving their intentions than the other. I don’t know if many people would be surprised when I say that, as a grad student and as an avid TED-viewer, I am often more interested, more inspired and more informed in the fifteen or so minutes that I spend watching a TED-talk than I am in a three-hour university lecture. I’m not out to criticize or berate our current education system, enough people make good money doing that already. But I am interested in how the differences between these two “educating” entities affect how successfully they inform and inspire.

By way of trampling on my own feet, and as a small apology for my previous remarks to all the good professors I’ve had the pleasure of learning under, my comparison will be framed by the ideas of a nineteenth-century writer whose words I would certainly have never read were it not for my university education. John Henry Newman was one of the most controversial and foremost intellects of his day. Though he is best known for his Grammar of Assent, and rightly so, his Idea of a University is the single most important text on the theory of education since Aristotle’s Politics, or so I’ve been taught by people who apparently know these things. To put it another way, Newman’s thoughts on education are the most influential in that realm since the beginnings of Western thought. It was his opinion that it is the duty of a University to promote development towards what he termed the “Illative sense” within each individual. This sense goes beyond the acquisition and storage of knowledge, informing a person’s ability to systematize their knowledge into an inter-related whole and conduct themselves according to the dictates of that internal, intellectual “culture” in all situations. The term “wisdom” could be said to approximate it, but I think Newman means something less ambiguous by it. In Idea of a University, he goes on to posit that cultivating this sort of intellect and inspiring each person to continue this development in their own lives is the only task of the University.

Apologies for the somewhat lengthy quote:

In default of a recognized term, I have called the perfection or virtue of the intellect by the name of philosophy, philosophical knowledge, enlargement of mind, or illumination;… but, whatever name we bestow on it, it is, I believe, as a matter of history, the business of a University to make this intellectual culture its direct scope, or to employ itself in the education of the intellect… I say, a University, taken in its bare idea… has this object and this mission; it contemplates neither moral impression nor mechanical production; it professes to exercise the mind neither in art nor in duty; its function is intellectual culture; here it may leave its scholars, and it has done its work when it has done as much as this. It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.

Newman despised the university-system of his day. He accused it of teaching students only how to acquire and regurgitate shallow information. According to him, students in these nineteenth-century schools learned “many things badly, and not one thing well”. Anyone acquainted with current education-reform themes and rhetoric will surely find these sentiments familiar.  According to Newman, students would be better off congregating in a single location for four years with no instructors, no curriculum, and no hierarchy than they were in their current state. Inherent in his analysis are what I believe to be the keys to TED’s success.

TED operates outside any judgemental structures. Grading and examinations force students to understand large quantities of information quickly and, often, superficially. With these demands removed, TED audience-members are free to naturally ingest the information that is most interesting and relevant to their situation. The audience walks away with what Newman calls “real” (as opposed to “notional”) apprehension of the propositions they’ve just received.

TED is concise, and audience-specific. Strict timeframes force speakers to be as informative, engaging, and instructive as possible in a short amount of time. There is no room for tangent, redundancy, or overwhelming description of context. Every second of the less-than-eighteen-minute presentation is entirely relevant to the single subject under discussion, a subject which each audience member chose specifically to engage with. So the “inattention epidemic”, if I may call it that, which has become such a focus for education reformers in recent years is entirely absent from the TED world.

Finally, there is an underlying structure within the TED community that bears a striking resemblance to Newman’s “Illative Sense”. TED is universal. It has the broadest of agendas. It is about connecting people with people as much as it is about connecting ideas with ideas. If I may be allowed a slightly liberal stretch, TED does for culture and community what the “Illative sense” does for the intellect. TED functions as a compendium of great ideas spoken by great people; it connects them, inter-relating and systematizing them for access by a global audience whose perspectives and actions are molded by the “internal culture” it represents. I think Newman would be thrilled by, and may even take some credit for, the framework and concept of TED. Spreading ideas, grasping at truth, injecting our own individualism into a body that shapes and is shaped by it and all others, not with a goal of perfection, but with an eye towards always perfecting how we think and who we are: this is the dream of Newman and the success of TED.