In TED Talks, Finding Value And Further Questions

Not long ago I was speaking with a friend about best practices for business development, discussing an expert he and I both admire, and about halfway through our conversation he said, “You have to see his TED talk.”

A TED talk: Such a reference, it seems, is now as common as mentioning the weather. For reasons of business or education, or simply to delight in new things, people are turning to to view the nearly two thousand short lectures given by thinkers around the world on every imaginable subject. In the search to find hidden patterns, understand nature, protect the environment, lead institutions and more, TED’s website has become an unofficial school of education.


And it’s not hard to see why.

TED talks do what successful companies do: They simplify. They take sprawling topics and package them into portions audiences can digest. Neuroscience is daunting, but a twenty-minute talk on Parkinson’s disease, threaded into a narrative about the personal impact of the latest treatments, is relevant and engaging. That’s something the average listener can manage.

Additionally, audiences can enjoy the talks with minimal disruption, enabling that cherished desire of the modern urbanite: multitasking. As I brew coffee and brush my teeth, John Wooden can enlighten me on leadership or astronaut Chris Hadfield can explain what he learned when going blind on a spacewalk. It's incredible. On the porch, in the car, or on a walk, TED puts us instantly in touch with some of the most fascinating minds of our day. 

The popularity of TED also originates in the speakers themselves. Lots of people can educate me on fear, but it’s different when it comes from an astronaut who lost his vision hundreds of miles above the earth. And I know, for example, that I shouldn’t judge someone or something based on preconceived notions, but when Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie delivers this message, weaving in stories from her Nigerian childhood, this lesson resonates in ways it never could before.

And yet, though I am a fan of TED and what it offers, its success leaves me with questions and concerns.

TED’s motto is “ideas worth spreading,” which leads me to wonder: Worth spreading in relation to what? Having heard about shark-deterrent wet suits, hammer strikes and nuclear fusion, and a “drone’s-eye view of conservation” (all subjects of recent TED talks), we might ask: What vision of society, and what understanding of the human person, is at stake? In what, and for what, are these insights directed?

To be fair, TED participants would probably respond that it's not TED’s mission to integrate or synthesize ideas, any more than it’s up to Barnes and Noble to integrate and synthesize what sits on its shelves. Fair enough. TED is not a secular Magisterium. Nevertheless, TED’s success dramatizes one of the supreme tasks of educators, particularly educators rooted in the Christian tradition.

That task could be articulated in different ways, but essentially it comes down to how we assimilate, interpret and, if necessary, re-route the data that stream endlessly into minds and culture. People today are awash in cool stuff, intriguing possibilities, and mesmerizing tales of the future. But the significance of this information is not self-evident. Each talk or dazzling theory is like a single chapter from a different book, and it’s up to teachers – and all leaders – to steward this material into a coherent, unifying narrative, to anchor intellectual achievements in a vision that safeguards human dignity and bestows meaning.

To start, we might consider these questions: When it comes to TED, what unites the talks? Beneath the medley of subjects, what are the convergences and common points? Are there presuppositions that every speaker shares? And what is the larger image of the human being, and of the universe, that is emerging? 

The answer to those questions would be an idea, or a set of ideas, very much worth spreading. 

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