Bringing the abstract home

In his presentation at Saturday’s TEDx event, organizer and speaker Abdullah Awad ’13 discussed the importance of “creating the conditions necessary for a psychological state most conducive to one’s own success.” In other words, one cannot simply create success: It is a quality too intangible for that. Rather, one must create the environmental conditions that seem to lead to success and hope that success will follow. This valuable tenet can be generalized to address problem-solving as a whole: the notion that not every problem can be attacked directly. Environmental factors are often inherent or crucial in the nature of a problem and therefore cannot be ignored. In the task of higher education at a liberal arts institution, I believe this is the case.

According to our mission statement, the College’s formal goal as an institution and a community is “to provide the finest possible liberal arts education by nurturing in students … academic virtues [including] the capacities to explore widely and deeply, think critically, reason empirically, express clearly, and connect ideas creatively.” Note that these aspirations are not especially tangible in form. A professor cannot point to anything concrete and say, “Look, this is how to think critically” or “Here is how to creatively connect ideas.” Indeed, it is central to the philosophy of a liberal arts education that its goals are inherently intangible in this way. The mission statement puts it nicely: “The most versatile, the most durable, in an ultimate sense, the most practical knowledge and intellectual resources that we can offer students are the openness, creativity, flexibility, and power of education in the liberal arts.”

How then are we to go about achieving such impalpable goals? The first answer to this question is provided by Williams College as an institution of higher education – i.e. by the faculty and staff. As students here, we have access to truly fantastic educational opportunities in the classroom – beyond what is available almost anywhere else in the world. These educational opportunities are, by definition, designed by professors and staff with the intention of indirectly developing those invaluable thinking skills the mission statement promises. In theory, every lecture we attend, every problem set we complete and every literary passage we analyze is done in the name of the mission statement quoted above. Of course, no one assignment will alone teach us “critical thinking” – it is hoped rather that the aggregation will collectively get at this abstract goal.
This said, I think that there is another, equally important approach to achieving the goals named in our mission statement. This approach considers the College as a community of intellectuals aimed at achieving the common goal of education rather than just as an institution of staff providing a service to students. I think that this is an essential distinction, as it demands a more active role of the learner in the creation of an environment that is collectively most conducive to learners’ success as a whole. Returning to Awad’s ideas: Sometimes the environment we create is crucially important to the goals we are trying to achieve. There is plenty of research that shows that, for example, a safe open environment that encourages the free spread of ideas is essential to encouraging the best results in group problem solving and critical thinking. And indeed, I think that it would be a mistake to assert that, in general, ideas are atomic and the work of one person working alone. Rather, creativity and reasoning (the things we want to encourage) are better understood as synthesis of thought from here and there. Understood this way, it is clear why the creating of an environment that encourages the open spread of ideas is so important – everyone brings different representations of problems and ideas to the table; only by interacting openly, can we take advantage of this intellectual diversity.

How are we to create the open environment that we seek? As Awad’s idea suggests, this is a task that must go beyond the classroom, as creating an environment is a “full-time job,” I think that Saturday’s TEDx was an intelligent step in the right direction. Programmed by the Adelphic Union, the event featured student, faculty and alumni speakers who reflected on themes ranging from art to community to philosophy to business in concise 20-minute TED talks (as seen on the Internet). What made the event truly distinctive was its diversity of subject matter and discussion. As closing speaker Ethan Zuckerman ’93 alluded to, the TEDx event is fantastic because it opens the stage to anybody who has an idea to share.

Like all TED events, TEDx Williams College was dedicated to “ideas worth spreading” and encouraged the open discussion of these ideas. Indeed, everyone who I spoke with thought that the event was a great success in achieving this goal. As Professor Joe Cruz put it, the success of the event was testified to by the “palpable buzz” of discussion in the theater and during the receptions surrounding the event. Indeed I think that this “buzz” is the symptom of a properly intellectually stimulating environment that we ought to be searching for. We cannot learn by virtue of the classroom alone – our intellectual aims simply do not permit it. We are responsible, as members of the community, for creating an environment that is most conducive to our own intellectual growth. Events like TEDx are a great way to do this.