Ideas want to be known: A TED Talk on TED Talks

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TEDx Greensboro takes over Triad Stage on Thursday

by Brian Clarey

It’s good to start with a question. Maybe even a couple of them.

Do you think that ideas can change the world? Certainly they can. The wheel, which at one time was just an idea inside the head of some prehistoric man — or woman! — profoundly affected life on this planet by shrinking distances and lightening loads. And if you agree that ideas have the power to change the world, wouldn’t you also agree that those ideas should be accessible to anyone? Anyone at all? By their very nature, ideas want to make themselves known. But how do we make these ideas accessible to all? How do we democratize them, catalog them, present them?

Is not the internet the perfect place for those ideas to live, where anybody can learn about them for free, in perpetuity?

That’s good. Now you want to set them up. Give them some startling context.

We didn’t always have the internet, of course. In terms of the timeline of human history, it’s brand new. In the old days, the real old days, ideas were spread in books. But not everybody knew how to read, and not everybody could afford to buy, or even to borrow, a book. Books were one of the ways we kept ideas secret when literacy was a rare talent.

There have always been those who understand the power of being informed, but education wasn’t a priority in this country until 1852, when Massachusetts became the first state to make a basic education compulsory, a system established by Horace Mann, the founder of Antioch College, backed by the power of law. There were just 31 states in 1852, but by 1917, the year every US state made education compulsory, there were 48.

That last state to make it mandatory for children to learn to read, write and count? It was Mississippi. Make of that what you will.

Beautiful. A little bit of history. Now tell a funny story. Not a joke — jokes are too risky. Not everybody likes jokes. But everybody likes a story, especially a funny one.

So way back before public education was a thing, and going to college was a luxury few had the time and money to pursue, people were more or less on their own when it came to learning beyond the basics of reading, writing and sums.

Enter Josiah Holbrook, a Yale man (Class of 1810) who saw a need for more education among the farmers’ sons and poor folk, if not a demand. He started the Agricultural Seminary in 1824, which taught scientific farming methods along with other natural sciences, mechanics and incorporated a good bit of manual labor — everything a modern farmer needed.

The Agricultural Seminary was a brilliant failure, lasting just a year or so. Part of the problem was that it was an agricultural school that held no land on which to practice the craft. Holbrook found himself a teacher in need of a class, so he went on the lecture circuit, speaking about chemistry and geology, until October 1826, when his paper, “Associations of Adults for the Purpose of Mutual Education,” ran in the American Journal of Education.

“[M]en of views enlightened enough upon education to see its defects and its wants, and spirit enough to act, are scattered more or less through the country; and all that is necessary for action, is some deliberate plan of operation, by which their efforts can be united and brought to bear upon one point.”

Not one month after the publication of the piece, Holbrook had founded the Millbury Lyceum in Massachusetts, and with it the US Lyceum Movement, named for the ancient Greek structure where Aristotle founded his Peripatetic school.

We won’t be diving that deep today.

What began as a series of Holbrook’s lectures on matters scientific and mechanical quickly evolved into a network of similar institutions around the nation, as far away as Florida and Michigan, which at the time roughly defined the borders of the young country. Luminaries of the day such as Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain became featured lecturers. Abraham Lincoln delivered one to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill. in January 1838, eight years before he was elected to Congress and 27 years before he was assassinated as president.

Fittingly, the subject on which the man most famous for preserving the union spoke that night was “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”

The movement’s repertoire grew to include debates, allegorical plays and classes, and touring companies took these shows on the road, drawing large crowds in tents and churches, as well as established lyceums throughout the country.

But by the end of the Civil War, vaudeville had taken over the circuit, and many of the lyceums were converted into entertainment halls.

Ideas want to be known, but not even the best of them could compete with Houdini.

Okay, not very funny, but definitely interesting. Keep going — tell the story like you’re talking to someone in a bar.

Fast-forward to 1874, to the shores of Lake Chatauqua in a far western corner of New York state, where John Heyl Vincent, a Southerner by birth and by then a Methodist minister, had been training Sunday-school teachers.

The curriculum grew beyond ecclesiastical study to encompass secular subjects: business, history, sociology, culture, politics, science and literature. And in 1874, he produced the New York Chatauqua Assembly with John Lewis, the man who invented the first combine with a side-mounted blade, instead of the old model that pulled the blade behind the horses.

Incidentally, Lewis’ daughter Mina would marry another famous inventor, Thomas Edison, in 1886.

Great aside! They love that!

This resort-style educational event proved popular and became an annual deal just as other chatauquas sprouted around the country, some of them tapping old hands from the lyceum movement for advice and contacts.

The program for the 1891 Lake Madison Chatauqua called it “the culmination of the greatest popular educational movement of modern times.

“It brings to the general public the opportunity, formerly denied to all save the favored few, of seeing and hearing the great speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers and specialists of the day,” it continues. “No one can attend the Lake Madison Assembly without being made stronger, better and happier.”

By 1900 there were 200 chatauqua pavilions in 31 states — there were 45 states that year — and a traveling tent show made the rounds everywhere else.

President Teddy Roosevelt had called chatauquas “the most American thing in America.” William Jennings Bryan became one of the more popular lecturers — he gave his “Prince of Peace” speech, touting Christian theology as the foundation for peace and equality, for 30 years in the circuit. Another popular speaker of the day, Russell Conwell, delivered his “Acres of Diamonds” lecture more than 6,000 times. The theme of that one was making money, and it begins with an anecdote about a man who sold his home and went off in search of diamonds, while the man who bought the home found a diamond mine on the property.

From there it wends into a litany of praise for rich people. A quote: “[N]inety-eight out of 100 of the rich men of America are honest. That is why they are rich. That is why they are trusted with money. That is why they carry on great enterprises and find plenty of people to work with them. It is because they are honest men.”

The proceeds Conwell made from delivering this speech enabled him to found Temple University, where he continued to give the lecture every year.

But by 1910, the automobile had come to America, collapsing the distances between farms and towns. By 1920, radio could cover the same ground as a dozen chatauqua troupes. And the quality was starting to wane. That year, Sinclair Lewis wrote that a circuit chatauqua he attended “seemed to be a combination of vaudeville performances, YMCA lectures and graduation exercises of an elocution class.”

In 1924, a Golden Jubilee was held at Lake Chatauqua to celebrate the movement’s 50-year anniversary. It was the last one.

Very dramatic. Now bring it home.

And so it was part of a grand, centuries-old tradition when, in 1984, in Monterey, Calif., Richard Saul Werman conceived a one-off conference based on the convergence of technology, entertainment and design — giving birth to the acronym TED — with smart speakers, cutting-edge technology and a little bit of star power. Over the duration of that conference, the compact disc was introduced, the Ebook discussed and new special-effects technology from Lucasfilm screened.

It was a total bust. Three hundred people showed, and only half of them paid to get in.

But in 1990, Werman tried again and it stuck. The TED Conference became an annual event, drawing the finest and most innovative minds from across the planet.

And then came the internet.

But instead of destroying TED, like technology had done to the chatauquas, the internet just made TED stronger. In 2006, a handful of TED Talks, as the 18-minute presentations have come to be known, were posted to YouTube and caught 1 million views within four months.

Ideas want to be known.

The annual TED Conference began to be simulcast online in 2008, and in 2009, TEDx launched, allowing independent groups to organize their own events under the TED banner. A fellowship program, a translation project and a radio show followed, all available online, all for free.

In autumn 2012, the conglomeration of TED Talks surpassed 1 billion views.

This year’s TED Conference was held in March in Vancouver, BC. Speakers included scientists, doctors, inventors, artists, academics, activists, jugglers, an urban planner, a philosopher, a magician, an astronaut, a professional athlete, David Brooks of the New York Times, Bill and Melinda Gates, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Google CEO Larry Page, Amanda Palmer, Charlie Rose, Edward Snowden and Sting.

Nice list. But you’ve got to wrap it up. You’re losing them. Now’s when you answer the question you posed at the beginning.

Over the years, TED has launched the Segway, the Macintosh, Shrek and Google. The talks have spanned the globe. And the ideas keep on coming. TED, and its offshoots, are using ideas to change the world. And the most important idea of them all is that ideas themselves, not unlike us, yearn to be free.