TEDxUMN’s passivity, lineup do a poor job of educating

These lectures don’t facilitate effective learning efforts.

Trent M. Kays

I attended the TEDx event at the University of Minnesota last year. A student committee organized TEDxUMN with the goal of providing the university community with an opportunity to participate in the glory of TED. For those unfamiliar, TED is an international lecture series that runs under the banner “ideas worth spreading.”

A TEDx is an independently organized TED event that adopts the structure of the international organization but operates in a quasi-outside way. Last year’s event was perfunctory and banal at best. I tweeted away the event, most often wondering if the organizers understood the immense privilege they exhibited by the lineup of speakers.

This year’s event will be no different. Last week, I received my TEDxUMN email touting an awesome lineup for this year’s theme, “Mapping Our Potential.” TEDxUMN is on April 27 this year, and yes, you do need to buy a ticket. Unlike the TED tickets that will cost you about $7,500, all TEDxUMN tickets are less than $40.

Despite the accessible price, the “ideas worth spreading” will still only spread to those who pay.

Not everything about TED and its related events are suspicious. Occasionally, there are great TED talks, and I even show a few in the classes I teach. However, TED talks are often sold as a space for idea generation and discussion. This is not the case. The basic elements of a TED talk are simple and value one thing: the speaker.

The TEDxUMN event is nothing radical. One chosen speaker stands on a lit stage and pontificates to a darkened audience. There is no engagement, there is no discussion and there is no excitement. The only chance for excitement is in the speakers. I can’t speak to the excitement of this year’s TEDxUMN speakers; however, the lineup highlights a privileged few.

This year’s TEDxUMN has nine speakers, and only two are people of color. Even more flummoxing is that all of the speakers are University faculty. There are no student speakers or community speakers this year.

So, in many ways, going to TEDxUMN this year will be like taking a class and sitting in a lecture hall. At least the tuition cost for this single lecture is low, though the seats might be uncomfortable.

This type of lineup is typical of all TED talks: a primarily white lineup that speaks to a passive and silent audience. This is the same type of presentation in college classrooms all over the globe. It’s a type of presentation that, in the 21st century, receives criticism — and for good reason.

Such presentations and teaching styles place more value on those with knowledge than those willing to learn. The student becomes a vessel, and the lecturer becomes the pitcher. This is an antiquated form of learning and knowledge attainment. Learning is most successful through dialogue or discussion. Through discussion, we can understand new knowledge.

Still, this isn’t even the most damning aspect of TED and TEDx talks. Such talks allow for no spontaneity and no authenticity. Organizers choreograph every minute detail. What is wrong with this? On the surface, nothing is wrong, but what this planning suggests is that learning is contained within a finite planned structure and time frame.

In addition, that finite learning is expensive. As I mentioned previously, the TEDxUMN cost is manageable, but there are other costs: ones of inclusion. TED is known for its exclusion of non-privileged voices from class structures other than the upper class. TEDxUMN is similar in many ways.

This year’s event is about “mapping our potential.” Whose potential, exactly? From the lineup of speakers, the only potential worth mapping is that of academics and college professionals. Are these the only voices that matter? I’m more interested in the potential of those struggling to succeed, those who are destitute and those in need of support.

The question shouldn’t be, “Did you see the TEDxUMN talks about potential?” The question should be, “How does TEDxUMN — or any TED talk — assist those in the most need of help?”

Otherwise, what’s the point of any TED or TEDx event? Without a clear and direct path for helping the unprivileged, the impoverished and the enslaved, a TED or TEDx event is nothing more than intellectual masturbation. For the organizers, it’s an event they can put on their resume, and that means something to some people.

However, what it doesn’t mean is that critical inquiry happened. Critical inquiry can never happen with a passive audience. Inquiry is a social effort, and we need to organize around this idea. Unfortunately, most TED talks, which may start as well-intentioned, end up being nothing more than a speaker regurgitating a Wikipedia page for a hostage group of people yearning for something to change.

I’m sure TEDxUMN will have a sizable audience, and attendees will mix with people at the after party, where they will discuss the grandiose ideas they’ve heard or not heard. They will ingest the corporate speak and jargon prone to such talks.

The speaker will lecture, the audience will listen and, more than likely, nothing will happen.