TED Talks: What’s Spouting from the New Age Tower of Edu-Babble?

TED Talks are all the rage in today’s North American education world.  Since British educational visionary Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 star turn in “Schools Kill Creativity,”  the short You Tube video talks have become a staple at most provincial teachers’ conferences and local Professional Development Days.  Millions of people, mostly futuristic educators, university-educated parents, students, and techies, have lapped up the polished mini-lectures professing to extoll “Ideas Worth Sharing.”  The incredible buzz has fueled expansion of the “TED brand” and sparked mini-conferences around the world taking advantage of the organization’s name and populist appeal.

SirKenRobinsonTED is the brainchild of a futurist.  It was founded in 1984 by American architect Richard Saul Wurman as a small “think tank” conference for visionaries and ‘egg heads’ from a wide range of fields interested in talking about the impact of technology on reshaping the world.  Its true roots are in Long Beach, Southern California.

Not until after Chris Anderson assumed control in 2001 did the TED franchise turn into a global intellectual powerhouse.  Today TED Talks on video have attracted over 800 million viewings and the average TED video gets 40,000 views withing its first 24 hours.  The TED Talk series has made Sir Ken Robinson the  reigning “rock star” among North American educators. Now that Vancouver has been chosen the site for the next annual TED Conference, you can expect the hype to spread even more across Canada.

The initial spell cast by the TED Talk phenomenon is beginning to wear off, six years after the real take-off on You Tube. Most recently, The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason (February 7, 2013) produced a fine commentary posing the fundamental question of whether the “Ideas Worth Sharing” might better be described as “a mountain of new-agey, mumbo-jumbo futurism that promises far more than it delivers.”

Prominent social critics and pedantic academic specialists are beginning to feast on the TED Talks, holding them up to much closer scrutiny.  A TED conference costs about $7,500 per person to attend, so the gatherings attract well-healed college educated adults with avante guard pretensions.  As Nathan Heller noted in The New Yorker (July 2012), TED Talks tend to feature style over substance and attract mostly uncritical audiences who are inclined to give standing ovations.

Leading academics, initially disdainful of  over-hyped TED Talk events,  are now beginning to weigh in with withering critiques. Former presenter, Evgeny Mozorov, writing in The New Republic (August 23, 2012), was merciless in his criticism of the genre. “Today TED, ” he stated, ” is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering – a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED… books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books –so it goes ad infinitum..” In the process, he claimed, “any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.”

Some of the TED Talks, as Gary Mason recognized, do have impact and value, but the spread of the concept has led to rather amateurish TEDx attempts at replication.  Sir Ken Robinson’s classic talks on Schools Kill Creativity, The Learning Revolution, and Changing Education Paradigms have set the standard, but the TED Talk movement may have passed its prime. Far too many of the more recent TED Talks look like the work of imitators or worse, charlatans. Watching some of those speakers shilling for their utopian schools or flogging their books leaves the distinct impression that you are witnessing the polished presentation of “ideas that no footnotes can support.”

Centuries ago the Ancient Greek Teachers inspired by Plato and Aristotle warned us against being fooled by the Sophists – and the spell cast by their empty rhetoric and persuasive oratory. What does the growing mountain of TED Talks amount to –a burst of creative ideas or a pile of New Age mumbo-jumbo?  Aside from Sir Ken’s impressive performances, have any of the Ted Talkers changed your life or the way you look at the world? What are the techno-futurists trying to teach us?

(Adapted from a Commentary originally posted at Educhatter, 8 February 2013)

About Paul W. Bennett


Founding Director, Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, NS

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