As Its ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ Talks Push Into the Classroom, It’s Time to Reject the Cult of TED
We need to talk about TED.
The high-profile conglomerate of conferences dedicated to bite-sized “ideas worth spreading” was a smashing enterprise when it began, back in the early 1990s, as a platform for innovators to discuss technology, entertainment, and design. It was fine as it slowly turned into a ludicrously pricey playdate—tickets are $6,000 a pop—for the world’s wealthy and easily amused. It was tolerable as its seemingly infinite stream of videos flooded the Internet, shooting up from 50 million views in 2009 to 500 million just two years later. But TED’s recent announcement introducing a new series of short animated lectures intended for college professors and their students should raise eyebrows, concerns, and voices in opposition. Entertaining as they may be, TED talks have no place in the classroom.
To understand why, and to put TED in some much-needed perspective, let us look at the conference’s greatest hits, those talks that generated millions of views and propelled the conference into cultural ubiquity. With few exceptions, TED talks come in three flavors: famous, in which folks like Al Gore or Bill Gates say whatever they damn please and it doesn’t matter because, hey, Al Gore! Bill Gates!; cool, in which computer scientists and marine biologists and astrophysicists jump on stage with tricked-out gizmos, amazing footage of octopi, or some other neat doodad for a brief show-and-tell; and moving, in which people tell other people that life is good and full of rich mysteries.
The first two categories are easy enough to dismiss. You hardly need a dedicated conference, after all, to get a chance to hear the former vice president talking about global warming, and those cool toys and videos are lovely and amazing but, ultimately, teach us nothing except the fact that there are some wicked smart people out there who can turn a $40 video game remote controller into an interactive whiteboard. What, then, of the final group of speakers, the movers? What might their wisdom teach us?