Ideas worth spreading
Is there enough learning at Colby? The College offers 54 majors and 13 minors, yet spontaneous discovery remains the exception. We are adept at answering good questions, but less so at asking them.
As anyone with young siblings or cousins knows, there is a point in our lives where the response to any statement is instinctively, “Why?” Paradoxically, by the time we reach college it is a question you rarely hear, least of all in class. Our professors lecture, and we in turn take notes blindly. The more we know it seems, the less curious we become.
Guest speakers, symposia and film series help combat this mindset, offering students the chance to discover compelling ideas outside their own disciplines. But, a school like Colby should pullulate with these opportunities, and not just from 5 to 7pm on school nights.
As an aspiring opinion writer, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what makes great columns. My favorite is the Opinionator, a collection of New York Times blogs organized by topics like science, education and political hysteria. One day I noticed the addition of a blog on the American Civil War. Its latest post was a vivid, almost lyrical account of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, and contained no opinions in the journalistic sense of the word.
Conventional wisdom holds that if a columnist doesn’t have an opinion, their column isn’t going to be very good. But, conventional wisdom doesn’t apply to the blogosphere or college campuses.
I envision an Echo column in which different faculty members take turns sharing ideas from their disciplines. No opinion required, just a story. In this way, you only have to open the newspaper to discover, for example, the Battle of Carthage, or the basics of plate tectonics. It’s a small, but important step toward a culture of unstructured learning and engagement at Colby.
It’s not as though valuable learning only exists outside of the classroom. In fact, the classroom is often the best place to learn, exactly because of its structure. Yet, the tedium of a 14-week semester takes its toll on both teachers and students. I know I’m not the first student to sit at their desk in late April and wonder what compels someone to make a career teaching, least of all in Waterville.
I ask this not out of skepticism but curiosity. And it is in the spirit of curiosity that Colby professors should take one “soap-box day” a semester to share with their classes what they really care about. What is it about biology, economics or psychology that every student should know? Tell us about your rarified doctoral thesis, so that we can share in your passion rather than be confused by it. Just keep it to an hour and avoid notes so that the learning stays organic.
“Ideas worth spreading.” It’s the motto of TED talks, the internet phenomenon in which experts from various academic disciplines share their research. The video presentations range from three to 20 minutes and together the top five talks account for over 30 million hits. It’s the apogee of the “Why?” mindset, and exactly the kind of event that could spark a culture change at Colby.
Colby’s own TED conference, with its own faculty presenting, should be a full-day event modeled on the original product. The content should be accessible to all students, regardless of academic interest. In fact, it ought be accessible to all people, because we can all benefit from a few more asking, “Why?”