Brundage ’15: Stop watching so many TED Talks

Opinions Editor
Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Our generation has both the collective attention span and the curiosity of a caffeinated squirrel. Though many students have the intellectual curiosity to explore beyond the syllabi of their courseloads, many lack the focus span or extrinsic incentives to move far beyond the surface level of multiple fields.

This is not a problem for which I can offer any real solution on a societal level. But on the individual level, anyone is capable of making some important behavioral changes here at Brown.

The inquisitive Brown student seeks an education beyond what he or she learns in the classroom through a wide variety of online sources. TED Talks, satisfyingly brief lecture-style reports of groundbreaking ideas in fields from education policy to medicine, are particularly popular.

Admittedly thought-provoking articles from sources like Cracked, Thought Catalog and even the New York Times opinions page are equally well-liked while remaining brief, requiring only a moment’s consideration before the reader can scurry off to the next topic.

From what I have gathered through informal observation, these types of sources constitute the vast majority of our informal education, excluding purely experiential education. Is there nothing significant outside our formal education that requires more than 15 minutes or 1,500 words to make its point?

It gets worse when we start to mimic the brevity of these pieces on our favorite social media sites. Twitter allows for 140 characters of thought. It is intended probably to keep physically distant friends in touch and to give the lonely and the delusional the false impression that they have any sort of relationship with their favorite celebrities. But instead, the site is often used for an attempt at real intellectual thought and discussion. Don’t we need a bit more than 140 characters for that?

Restricting oneself exclusively to such quick and easy content resembles something rather like premature ejaculation. All you get is the climax of an idea. Where, I must ask, is the foreplay? Our generation seems to have left it in the 1990s next to our attention span.

There is unquestionably a place in the world of curiosity that Brown students inhabit for outlets like TED Talks. They allow us to explore and comprehend the surface level of foreign ideas and increase the accessibility of knowledge and thus power to a wide audience.

But these can never replace the role of a book or even a scholarly article. They tend to blur the line between true scholarship and entertainment, and we only need to look as far as Fox News punditry to see why this is dangerous.

Unfortunately, the behavior of browsing articles and short videos rather than reading a canonical piece of American literature is difficult to curtail. It’s addictive. After all, why read a whole book on the history of an idea when a blogger has explored it with greater wit and brevity?

This behavior is perpetuated by others’ tendency to spend their time the same way. We are potentially left out of an enlightening conversation if we choose to have a love affair with a John Keynes classic instead of a one-night stand with whatever Paul Krugman blog post just went viral on Facebook.

Particularly in an environment like that of Brown, where many of our most treasured experiences come from the brilliant conversations we strike up with friends and hallmates, it seems we are incentivized to become novice-level conversationalists in all fields rather than experts in a happy few.

To this sort of thinking, I will mimic the advice I was once given in an auditorium full of political thinkers. If all your education does for you is make you more interesting to talk to at a cocktail party, then you have failed. We owe it to humanity and to ourselves to reject the satisfaction of an hour on the aforementioned sites in favor of something more substantive.

I leave readers with a challenge. The next time you come across a concept that satisfies your intellectual hunger, keep eating. Move beyond the commentary of the blogosphere and pick up a book about it until you’ve discovered that the meat of the hamburger you enjoyed is also the basis of a filet mingon.



Matt Brundage ’15 hopes that you keep reading his opinions even though he just suggested that your time might be better spent otherwise.