TED Talks and the Death of the College Lecture

Lecture_hallFor the last 10-20 years, people have been prophesying the death of the college lecture.  The caricature of the typical college lecture course has become iconic in the college movies of the last 30 years: large, boring, droning, easily skip-able.  To counter this perception, colleges typically market their small class sizes and the discussion basis of their courses. Great Books programs and schools have sprung up all over the place claiming the text as teacher and trying to produce an education simply by reading and discussing.  Such a method, it is argued, is how education was intended…and where it is headed again.  But before we sound its death knell and throw it overboard, I think it is worth saying that the lecture is not dead.  And what proves it: TED talks. 

Started in the 80’s, TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks have seen their popularity skyrocket recently due to their free online availability.  The motto of the foundation that hosts these talks is simply “ideas worth sharing.”  And people download and share these talks like crazy.

TED talks are an easy face to put on what I believe to be a much larger cultural phenomenon.  We are often accused as a culture of talking too much.  But it turns out that we also like to listen….to ideas that matter, presented by intelligent thinkers, in engaging ways, for the purpose of impacting real life.

If the college lecture is dead, it didn’t die from starvation but from suicide.  Colleges havent lacked audiences willing to listen.  They have lacked professors able to communicate clearly.  When baby boomers started going off to college, there were too many students and not enough professors.  Universities overhired, awarded tenure, and have been waiting for the professor bubble to burst for the last 15 years.  As the baby boomer pig has moved slowly down the python, the demand for college education has lessened.  People question the expense and the usefulness of pursuing a degree which in one extreme is impractical for a vocation and on the other extreme amounts to little more that vocational training for a rapidly changing technologically sophisticated workplace.  The university is seen as not helping its students make a living or make a life.  For far too long, too many tenured professors have seen their role as simply mountain top gurus gifting humanity by speaking esoterically on whatever topics that tickle them to whatever students the university happens to provide them with.

Don’t misunderstand me. Knowing things is what professors are supposed to do.  But, knowing things is not the only thing professors are supposed to do. Professors, as their name implies, actually have to profess the things they know.  The problem is that grad schools, hiring committees, and tenure review boards are not in any way set up to evaluate one’s ability to inspire and impart knowledge to the next generation. Grad School and Academic life reward people who can sit quietly by themselves for long hours in libraries reading and writing.  So universities keep hiring professors who don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of people and keep tasking these people with doing just that.  No wonder universities are struggling. No wonder people view the college lecture as a fossilized dinosaur of a bygone era.  But it need not be this way.

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