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TED Balks

The famed conference’s lectures can’t be educational tools, because the bite-sized videos trivialize big ideas

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock.)

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?

Too often, something wrong. Take, for example, one of TED’s all-time blockbusters, author Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on creativity. Creativity is to TED what Obama is to right-wing radio—an elusive subject endowed with magical abilities the correct understanding of which is crucial to the survival of the republic. Gilbert rose above most of her fellow co-creativity-consultants with a simple and compelling message: Stop treating inspiration as an innate quality, embrace the ancient view that art and wisdom come from some external and exalted source, and don’t worry so much.

“I’ve been looking across time,” Gilbert says in her talk, “and I’ve been trying to find other societies to see if they might have had better and saner ideas than we have about how to help creative people sort of manage the inherent emotional risks of creativity. And that search has led me to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. People did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then. People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity daimons.”

Gilbert’s TED bio informs us that she’s “thought long and hard about some large topics”; the philosophy of ancient Greece, it seems, wasn’t among them. A modicum of learning would have surely introduced the author of Eat, Pray, Love to the formidable Heraclitus, who quipped that “character is for man his daimon.” You needn’t be a classicist to discern that Heraclitus’ statement means, more or less, just the opposite of what Gilbert’s does.

To be fair, Heraclitus’ view wasn’t exactly the consensus; other Greeks did think extensively about daimons, and Gilbert enlists the granddaddy of them all: Socrates.

The ur-philosopher, she solemnly informs us, “famously believed that he had a daimon who spoke wisdom to him from afar.” And if Socrates famously believed it, who are you, Internet video watcher, to doubt him?

Again, a touch of old-fashioned reading produces a very different view. For one thing, Socrates never spoke of daimons but of daimonions, which literally translates into “divine somethings.” These were amorphous voices; they sometimes warned Socrates against errors, but never told him what to do. No wisdom from afar, then, and no reason to reduce one of humanity’s greatest thinkers into a mere receiver and transmitter of fairy magic.

Sad as it may be, however, none of this is Gilbert’s fault. The real blame for such over-simplified and frequently erroneous drivel lies with TED. Its central premise is wrong: No idea worth spreading can be condensed to 20 minutes or less, and there are far more meaningful ways of spreading ideas than viral videos on the Internet.

Socrates himself would have concurred. In the Phaedrus, the philosopher, witnessing the rise of writing, bemoans the new form and its perils. “Writing,” he states, “is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.”

Nor can TED talks. Which, of course, is not a problem if you’re watching one while sitting on the couch, procrastinating, surfing the web, doing your best to avoid other things. But in the classroom, where questions and answers remain the foundation of the educational experience, there’s no room for TED.

Which is not to say that there’s no room for video, audio, and other multimedia. As a college professor, I rarely teach a class without pulling up some clever or entertaining clip to illustrate my point. But that’s not what TED’s new educational initiative, named TED-Ed, seeks to do. The idea behind each video is to help the professor “flip” his or her lesson, namely to encourage students to watch the videos at home and then discuss them in class. To aid in the discussion, TED-Ed provides questions and quizzes; one video, for example, contributes to our understanding of Islamist extremism by asking penetrating questions like where was the talk’s presenter born.

This is trivial nonsense, and TED, sadly, can’t hope for much better as it enters the classroom: The videos are too brief to explore any topic in depth, which means that any discussion they may incite is likely to do little but skim the shallow waters of its given subject matter.

For better models of cutting-edge education, we may want to look not to the future but to the past. Socrates—him again—leaves us with a solid idea of how to make a classroom brim with meaningful discussion. If we learn anything from him, it’s probably that it’s a better idea to invest in innovative teachers rather than in innovative teaching technologies. And if we’re interested in educational technology, we should think less TED and more Talmud: By reading a daf yomi, a page a day of the great book, Jews are encouraged to take their time, relish the text, and engage with its every line. We’ve been doing it for a while now, and, taken as an educational experiment, it’s been rather successful.

Granted, spending an entire day on one page of one book isn’t as entertaining as hearing a master storyteller talking about swimming with the world’s most dangerous jellyfish, but it develops the kind of mind that seeks more than mere entertainment. We may not have to be so doggedly committed to our textbooks to achieve similar intellectual results, but, at the very least, we should think long and hard before signing up for the cult of TED.

***

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This article is unfair. I have seen many remarkable ‘Ted Talks’ and through them become acquainted with many first- rate investigators and thinkers. It is true that there is a lot of material which does not interest me, or is not to my taste. But on the whole the eighteen- minute talks are a refreshing educational experience. I now prefer the ‘Big Think’ site to Ted because I would rather read in a couple of minutes a presentation that it might take twenty to present in video. I also recommend the ‘Edge’ site for those who would be up-to- date on a lot of the latest scientific and technical material. Also ‘Science Daily’ is good.

liel_leibovitz says:

I don’t disagree with you, Shalom. I was only suggesting that as an educational tool, to be used in classrooms, the TED model leaves much to be desired.

saintanthony says:

I actually do affirm the general premise of this article.  Whilst friends of mine love TED talks, and other friends have actually given TED talks, I have found that this current trend towards simplification across the border of human thought and human encounter actually, in the end, complicates the efficacy of activity and engagement between the individual and the greater world, in terms of society, culture, aesthetics, theology, praxis.  Most significant issues and situations deserve much deeper thought, much deeper reflection, much more carefully planned action, than is afforded by TED, by YouTube, by Twitter, by Facebook.

gemel says:

There are remarkable TED talks and there is junk TED filler.  TED is a sampler for the broad public which can reach anyone with internet access – think of it as the Carnegie Libraries in their day, making materials, ideas etc. available to everyone. 

If we are interested in more, in deeper and broader exploration, then we can do that after having our interests sparked by the TED (or even our disagreements or discomfort sparked).

sammyaugust says:

You didn’t even mention how they showed their lack of either a sense of humor or the deeper meaning of the talk by Sarah Silverman.  The woman is a genius and they were too bound by society rules to be the free thinker that intelligent people should be. 

sammyaugust says:

I still have a problem with how these intelligent people treated Sarah Silverman.  First of all,  what did they expect, a speech on the origins of the universe?  Sarah, with her own genius and her own fearless brand of humor and intellect, gave them something to really think about.  TED chose to be bound by convention and denounce Sarah instead.  What small minds!

I dislike both the tone and the content of this article. I have used TED talks (as well as RSAnimate talks), particularly to approach issues of EQ with business people and have found them extremely effective. Also, the best of them (e.g. Brene Brown) will lead listeners to further research and reading. I’m in my 70th year and a former academic I believe I have as good a claim to the mental of “intellectual” as anyone, and I love the way the best TED talks make knowledge available and accessible to people who might otherwise never encounter it. Knowledge is not the property of the anointed few, and those who think it is or should be will be annoyed by TED.

Sounds like sour grapes to me! I don’t think there’s
anything wrong with making education more intriguing, or captivating
students with a short highly-produced video – as long as you’re not
asserting that the video is a substitute for ‘close-reading’ or deeper
investigation – which it doesn’t sound like Ted is suggesting.

We’re still in the early stages of 

heywoj says:

TED talks can be great introductions to all sorts of topics in the classroom. They do not replace the teacher and do not take the place of a textbook.   They are like brain-candy.  Helps you get excited about a topic

liel_leibovitz says:

Thank you, Isaac, for your thoughtful comment, and for the historical correction. I still hold that whether you study b’iyun or through quick daily bursts of reading and introspection, the result is still much time and consideration and thought dedicated to one text. TED still strikes me as the opposite. 

Flo_J says:

Never thought I’d agree with you!
(For the sake of full confession I also have an allergic reaction to Gilbert and intensely dislike ELP).  A mile wide and an inch deep is not a way to learn anything.

mouskatel says:

Well, since Liel thinks he has cornered the market on all that is right in the world (therefore he knows exactly all that is wrong with it as well), it makes perfect sense as to why he is annoyed by TED talks. 

mouskatel says:

There’s a very good reason why the tone and assumptions embedded in the article were so negative- that’s the only way Liel knows how to write. It’s quite trite and boring by now, one hopes he will figure out this style won’t get him very far in the world. 

Ezikiel says:

I agree with Liel 100%.  TED is just fluff.  As an avid consumer of knowledge on the web I’ve been seduced many times to check out what this or that speaker have to say on TED, and it’s invariably a shallow and dissapointing experience.  I really can’t stand it.  I have nothing against hype and superficiality in general, and not even agains enabling stupid people to feel smart, but I’m offended by fluff masquerading as real knowledge and education.   There are many other sources of great education on the web.  bloggingheads.tv is one good example.
Thanks Liel

A shaynem dank, Mr. Leibovtiz.

TED is symptomatic of the disorder described by the incomparable Sarah Schulman in “The Gentrification of the Mind,” especially in her riff on the contemporary fear of “discomfort.”

Those who would cheerlead on behalf of TED, a vastly successful multi-million dollar enterprise, ought ask themselves if a 20-minute “TED talk” ever so challenged the status quo as to make them experience genuine discomfort.

Is “serious thought” really in the business of encouraging the self-flattery and self-satisfaction of its audience?

Would TED be so vigorously profitably if “TED talks” rattled their eager attendees with the risky and ambiguous prospects usually associated with serious intellectual discovery?

TED is nothing more than a very expensive brand of self-medication for the bien-pensant bourgeoisie. (The high price has a kind of placebo effect in authenticating its perceived value.)

It’s perfectly OK to disdain it.

Historicism says:

I don’t think the medium is the problem so much as the content. Look at Bryan Magee’s wonderful philosophy interviews. (For an insight into science, start with this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cG3sfrK5B4E)

Ted talks are often entertaining but they are only deep and inspirational to the shallow and uninspired.  They are the Successories poster of the internet age.  If your college professor plays one to you in a lecture I’d recommend changing community colleges.

And the plural of octopus is octopuses, a perfectly nice way of making a plural in English (rather than trying to put a Latin ending on a word that comes from the Greek, which makes no sense).

TED is a very interesting way to introduce people to new and thought provoking ideas. It is meant not as an end but a means to get people to think and explore. That is all…really some people can find problems in everything.

Don’t be a Ted Talk sissy – listen to hard-core intellectual podcasts:
Carnegie Council, Conversations with history, EconTalk, Entitled Opinions, Foundation for Jewish Studies, In Our Time, London School of Economics, OCCSP, Rear Vision, etc. etc.!!!!!

marcellawachtel says:

What is “ur-philosopher”?  Do you mean “uber-philosopher?

quickbaby says:

i read this article in less than 20 minutes. it is therefore, by the authors own logic, not an idea worth spreading. the author is a professor? i urge any students to avoid this professor, as he clearly has difficulty thinking analytically.

nit picking a couple of (arguably) not-so-good TED talks does not invalidate any of the others. it also bears mentioning that nobody is trying to replace the entirety of higher learning with TED vids — not that i expect such a childishly ranting professor to be any better at teaching.

dont like them? fine. you dont have to. dont have to use them either. by all means, exercise your right to free speech & proclaim it to everyone. next time you might want to make a halfway decent argument though, because this article was worse than a waste of everyones time.

i award you no points, & may god have mercy on your soul.

quickbaby says:

i like your argument, but might i ask: when is the last time a college professor so challenged the status quo in a classroom that it caused you genuine discomfort?

ah yes, & then a couple of rhetorical(?) questions of dubious relevance later we finish with a nice beau monde disdain for the unwashed masses. how quaint.

on second thought, i dont like your argument at all — it is symptomatic of a supercilious character… XD

quickbaby says:

“Liel Leibovitz is a visiting assistant professor focusing primarily on video game and interactive media research and theory. Having received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 2007, Leibovitz continues to study the ontology of electronic game play, exploring such diverse issues as human-machine interaction, gaming and the construction of player subjectivity, and representations of death and violence in video games.”
yeah, this guy. so how long does it take to share an idea ‘worth’ sharing? most college courses last 150 minutes a week for about 4 months, less holidays. most college courses teach dozens of ideas simultaneously & progressively. how long does it take to read the ten commandments? pretty important stuff there. how long does it take to read this article? **less than 20 minutes.**

BY WHAT CREDENTIALS DO YOU JUDGE??? yours? laughable. lets not make this out to be more than it is. if you find a TED talk that is relevant to your curriculum, why NOT use it? what possible harm could it cause? tell you what: if i ever give a TED talk, ill talk about video games. youre welcome.

Rebecca Klempner says:

I happen to like TED talks. I prefer the “Type 2″ listed above  (although I agree that some of the sites Mr. Freedman cites are better) because I’m not interested in celebrities and would prefer to look to my own rabbis and teachers for inspiration. In many such “Type 2″  TED talks we  get to hear about some fascinating new bit of research or technological development from a star in the field, which may start the wheels turning in my own head. I appreciate that. However, I do think that Ms. Leibovitz makes a good point: it’s not enough to just accept that “teaser” bit of knowledge offered in the TED talk as the whole shebang on any given idea.

I think the offered analogy to Daf Yomi is excellent. In learning the daily page of Talmud, you’ll pick up a smattering of just about everything. However, you must plow into each page at length if you really want to grasp it. 

So, you see a cool TED talk. Then, the next step is–go to the internet and look for more info about the presenter/their thesis/the subject. Do they have other books or articles available? Are their other scientists/writers/etc. who hold the opposite point of view? Why? 

The TED talk is just the jumping off point for a learning experience. I think that Ms. Leibovitz’s concern is that students will view the TED-Ed videos and just swallow them whole, without the questioning and ruminating before digesting. But true “flipping” in a school environment uses videos ONLY as the jump off point. The students get an overview or a point to ponder so that when they get in the classroom, the testing, discussion, and practice begins. 

Of course, there will probably be lazy professors (and students) who don’t correctly use such material. But many won’t.

Disdain for the “unwashed masses”?

TED’s entrance fee is $7500USD. (You can reserve a “virtual seat” for only $995USD.) 

cssavage says:

I
think you have massively missed the point. I have seen and heard things on TED
that have truly inspired me to action. This is not to say that in twenty
minutes I am educated and now “know” something. More accurately, I
know after twenty minutes that I don’t have a clue; however, I know that I want
to “know.” I now am inspired to go learn more. I am now made aware that
something I didn’t know exists, and I am grateful that others are thinking
about, asking questions about, and solving problems that others haven’t even
imagined.

 

There
is a pretty cool documentary that follows the 2006 TED behind the scenes and
you see what happens after someone with a great idea comes off stage and they
are approached by people with the resources to help them pursue their great
idea. Many of these are young thinkers unencumbered by the burdens of realism
and pragmatism, who don’t believe a solution is out of reach, but that it
hasn’t been thought of yet.

 

I
don’t think anyone uses TED to teach. They use TED to imagine. They use it to
appreciate the possibilities. TED’s mission is to encourage the sharing of
ideas and then challenge
those with talents, influence, and means to help make ideas into realities.
They also celebrate art, culture, science, design and philosophy in the same
space which says that these elements which are often artificially kept at odds
are all part of the same holistic process.

 

You
and others who have commented mentioned the cost of attending the TED
conference as exclusive.  However they
make the content of the conference available free online to anyone.  How is that elitist or exclusionary?   

 

I
use a flipped model to teach my courses and I make all of my own video lectures
for my students to watch before class. 
The advantage is now I can use the class time for a multi-directional
flow of information, sharing, collaborating, problem solving.  Whereas before, while we were together in
class they received the lecture and then outside of class did “work.” 

 

And
every once in a while I have assigned a TED talk viewing as homework and my
students come to class with excited with all kinds of questions.  They are eager to learn what else they don’t
know.

James Brown says:

A staggeringly silly criticism, rather like complaining a charcoal drawing hasn’t any color. As a teacher who loves the TED talks and the TEded, I use the videos not because they are examples of full length, well developed arguments, but because they are clever, interesting heursitics, whose purpose is to stimulate thought.

Leibovitz says that short videos can only produce shallow conversations. Why is that true? It’s not.

If a teacher asks students to create only TED-Ed length responses to the complex questions, well that would be a problem. But presumably teachers are using the talks just to get things started.

jonmonroe says:

Yes, TED is ugly. But there is no getting around it. Yes, TED inevitably becomes a career step for half-thinkers and popularizers. So what. These objections to TED about promoting lesser or half-understood ideas are a kind of discomfort with impure reality — much like the political discomfort of lefties which has left the lower classes prey to the right. Stop worrying so much and get yawping.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

Liel, while you spend some time to describe the Greek Socratic daimon model for inspiration, I would prefer the Kabbalah view on how a creative idea is generated.

There is a nice explanation of Atzilut, Beryia, Yetzirah and Assiah from
http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/361902/jewish/The-Four-Worlds.htm

The author is Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov is director of Chabad Lubavitch in
Wimbledon, UK.

We could delineate four stages in this process:

1) The initial flash of inspiration (concept) (Atzilut)

2) The broadening of the concept (developing the concept in detail) (Beryia)

3) Emotional involvement and the drawing of actual plans (Yetzirah)

4) Practicalities (building) (Assia) 

As Atzilut is just an emanation from Adam Kadmon (Holiness), the only difference is that it has the vessels already formed. This is the Divine inspiration, the “Aha” of all creation. We are just the medium, not the sourceIn the “Kabbalah of Creation” by Eliahu Klein  we quote from page 70 “Warning for the Reader”: ”A reader must know how to sift out all layers that are happening simultaneously Not only the reader must “haalt kop” (holding your head in one place)… but must intuit these secrets within the reading.This is something we can not do when other entertain us in from a  TV or  a TED video. The whole purpose of entertainment is to keep our attention to the show, so we can not think in nothing else. However it is a clever way to canvass great ideas, boring on paper for 98% of the people

Beets4Breakfast says:

I disagree.  As a college professor myself at an Ivy League institution, I’ve used TED as a tool to help illuminate my instruction.  The author, in fact, admits : “I rarely teach a class without pulling up some clever or entertaining clip to illustrate my point”– I wonder what those entertaining or clever clips might be?  Fellow Professor, do you favor YouTube over TED because the former is so much more intellectually nuanced and complex? One of TED’s strengths is communicating highly complex ideas in a clear, understandable and–dare I say engaging?–manner.  Some might say this is oversimplification and OF COURSE they are correct (somebody ought to do a TED talk on that), but it is then our job as instructors to help students (and ourselves) parse out what is drivel and what is inaccurate and what merits more attention, JUST like we do with the primary literature (which in spite of its peer reviewed status is also subject to inaccuracies and oversimplifications).  Other media (like, say, the NYTImes, or “The Tablet”??) also belong in the classroom for the same reasons–but it is our role as educators to help students critically analyze the information, as well as the message, provided.

Finally, as a professor, you have no doubt been expected in various talks to condense your OWN research–starting with your dissertation–into brief, understandable presentations and abstracts.  This is a highly refined skill, and those who are best at it are some of the most brilliant integrated thinkers and communicators around.  As for me, I welcome more TED, into the classroom.  I’ll never teach about the “population crisis” to my intro class again without Hans Rosling’s amazing presentations, or about global agriculture without the clever, concise insights of (Professor) Jonathan Foley.

The author does well, however, in reminding us how important it is to remain highly observant, and critical, of novel-seeming messages whose aim is to provoke.  

quickbaby says:

yes, the unwashed masses. “those who would cheerlead on behalf of TED”, “[TEDs] audience”, “[TEDs] eager attendees”, & the “bien-pensant bourgeoisie” all constitute a group of people falling under the following definition:

unwashed masses (plural only) 1.(idiomatic) The collective group (“mass”) of people who are considered by someone to be somehow uneducated, uninformed, or in some other way unqualified for inclusion in the speaker’s elite circles.

unless, you know, you dont feel that way about those groups at all, in which case i apologize for misreading your disparaging remarks as being the pretentious castigation it so appeared to be.

as to college professors, your initial implicit argument was something along the lines of ‘TED talks do not challenge the status quo, so are therefore (insert negative characteristic)’. no specific characteristic was given, but as the article you were responding to involved using TED talks as a classroom tool in a college setting, it is safe to assume you intended to criticize that potential role.

in order to illustrate the ridiculousness of your argument (and it is, indeed, ridiculous), i used the very same argument against you. i am glad you find it equally  useless. i am sure you will also note that your own closing comment will nicely suffice as my rebuttal:

even if no TED talk in the known universe were to discomfit (discomfOrt is actually a better word choice, as it was the original word used) anyone, this wouldn’t magically transform “TED talks” from revolutionary to banal.

Yiam Cross says:

Worse, if you take the time to explore the official TED group on LinkedIn you will find it appears to be an evangelical religious group. It favours christian believers and censors unbelievers harshly. The only idea worth spreading is an idea they agree with, challenging views are quickly erased or prevented from appearing.

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TED Balks

The famed conference’s lectures can’t be educational tools, because the bite-sized videos trivialize big ideas

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