I used to adore TED talks. I thought they’re the modern world’s answer to the old Lyceum movement. Bringing the wisdom of the our best and brightest to the curious masses, but in short and sweet format to accommodate our digital ADHD.

But the more of them I watched in my own field, the more I saw speakers butcher their subjects. Turns out they are rarely experts. Occasionally you’ll get someone on the cutting edge, but TED seems to select more for performance and theatrics than knowledge. Half of these talks are given by journalists who have only a modicum of experience in the subject, and most are wildly idealistic. The greatest sin of all is the scripted TED-brand performance. I feel like they should trademark it, with its dramatic pauses and hand gestures, a heartfelt anecdote to start it all off, a bit of pacing, some nice graphics; it’s like they’re given a formula. They have a TED hour on NPR now, and even without video, you can feel the sensationalism seeping through the speakers. Check this out:

Seth Godin is the perfect example of this phenomenon. He’s got the body language and formula down perfectly. He doesn’t seem to be any sort of expert in pedagogy, but he’s rich, personable, theatrical, and can carry a crowd. Most importantly, he’s idealistic, and wants to tell you about why the system is broken, but could be fixed if we just changed everything!

Let’s ignore the conspiracy theory level talk about how public education came about for the sole purpose of creating mindless factory drones. Maybe it had that effect, but to suggest the entire thing was orchestrated as a vast hidden scheme makes me wonder when we’re going to talk about the Illuminati or Lizard People. Instead let’s consider his eight-steps for fixing everything:

  1. Inverted classroom – One brilliant professor serving millions via online video, while the rest of the teachers of the world serve as glorified assistants at in-person recitation sessions? Sounds good for the guy at the top, but you’re killing diversity of thought. If literally two or three professors in the world teach each class, they control the entire curriculum, they emphasis what they consider is important, they ignore what they don’t, and they homogenize the learning of an entire generation. The recitation teachers could fill in some blanks, but at the end of the day you end up with an entire generation of intellectual clones. Also, I hate video lectures, if you miss one thing and you’re lost for the rest of the lecture. If you can’t interrupt to ask questions, or get the benefit of others doing so, you’ll have an inferior experience no matter how great the professor is.
  2. End Memorization – He seems to be going overboard, but yeah, that’s OK in moderation. We’ve spent time in our class talking about how unproductive rote memorization is. You don’t need your physician to remember all 185,000 drug interactions, but they should at least remember where the gallbladder is without having to look it up. The idea of never memorizing anything is a bit simplistic.
  3. End Prerequisites – Who could possibly think this is a good idea? We use spiral curricula in modern pedagogy for a reason: you need to have a basis in the fundamentals before you can dive into advanced stuff. That isn’t unjust or unfair, it’s just reality. You can’t go sit in the electrical engineering department’s graduate signal processing class if you have no math or physics knowledge beyond high school, you won’t get anything out of it.
  4. End specific degrees – we’re already moving towards interdisciplinary education, and again this is fine in moderation, but unless we live in a Star Trek like post-scarcity society without any obligation to work, you’ll need some defined skills to get a job. You cannot take nothing but poetry and art classes and then be a civil engineer.
  5. Measure experience instead of test scores – Nice in practice, easier said than done. In this part he also claims that resumes as a measure of compliance will become useless, but as with #4, as long as there are employers, those resumes will be useful.
  6. Teachers should be coaches – Huh, I actually like this.
  7. Incorporate work into schooling – I wish he said more on this.
  8. Death of the Famous College – LMFAO.

Those colleges were relevant when Byzantines controlled the Bosporus, and before the Aztecs even started building their empires. Think of all the incredible social changes the last 1000 years has brought; those colleges survived them all. The rise and fall of feudalism, the first limits on the monarchy’s power, the modern republic, the rise and fall of communism, the rise of modern capitalism, the renaissance, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the rise and fall of colonialism, the space age. Through it all, those colleges survived and flourished. I think they’ll outlive capitalism too.

No, seriously, I can envision a time when robotic manual labor and AI mental labor are so cheap that literally everyone has everything they could possibly want, and even then, those colleges will be around. Humans are social animals, and outside of the insects, all social animals are concerned with status. So long as those colleges grant status, they’ll have relevance in any society. And don’t tell me there isn’t a real difference in quality either.

The claim that attending such a college has “no relevance to success or happiness” is also bullocks. Don’t tell me that attending Oxford isn’t significantly associated with higher success rates than attending State. Of course there is a variance in outcomes, but overall there is a huge association between attending an elite college and success. Happiness is another story, but I would imagine there is at least some correlation between it and general success, money, status, and comfort in life.

He concludes by saying that we need to kill two false ideas:

  1. Great performance in school leads to happiness and success.
  2. Great parents leads to great performance in school.

Which is odd, because I think both of those are some of the most self-evident truths in education. Yes, Dave Thomas didn’t finish high school, founded Wendy’s, and ended up being extremely rich. But variance aside, in general someone who finishes high school will be more successful than someone who doesn’t, and someone with an MBA from Harvard will probably do even better. Is there really a debate here?

As for the parents, isn’t parental involvement strongly associated with success? Same goes for stability at home. If you find a kid who goes hungry every other night, or suffers from abuse or neglect, the last thing they want is to play around with an Arduino to make art. Helping these kids out is incredibly difficult, but let’s not pretend that we live in some fairy-tale world where having great education-minded parents isn’t an advantage. If anything, we should devote resources to helping the kids who don’t have such parents, instead of telling them it doesn’t matter.

Asking the question “what school is for” is invaluable, and Mr. Godin does have some good ideas. He really does. If he simply gets people thinking about the issue, he has done a great service. But, man… does this smell like the naïve idealism of a layman. Does Mr. Godin have any pedagogical credentials at all? His biography suggests he is a marketing executive that made a lot of money during the dotcom era, and now writes business self-help books. Perhaps we should take all of his advice with a grain of salt.