TEDx Haverford: from Shakespeare to Sun Tzu

I spent this afternoon at TEDx Haverford, which was organized by Isaac Anthony ’14, Sofia Athanassiadis ’14,  Tamar Hoffman ’15, Ellen Rienhart ’15, and Victoria Sobocinski ’13. My introduction to TED talks came via Bill Bragin ’89, Lincoln Center’s Director of Public Programming who serves as Music Advisor to TED;  TED started out back in 1984 as a conference designed to bring together folks from Technology, Entertainment, and Design — and which continues to do so in twice-yearly conferences for which registration runs to $7,500 for the four days of 18-minute talks.  TED now disseminates its talks through the web, an NPR show, and TEDx conferences in which local organizers adopt the TED format (one which works best for those who are both concise and charismatic) for locally-invited speakers who are interspersed with videos of TED and TEDx speakers whose talks address the themes chosen by the organizers.

The Haverford organizers selected three organizing themes for the day’s talks: “Past to Future,” “Hostility to Understanding,” and “Isolation to Interaction.”  Given the work of the OMA office, I was particularly interested in the second set of talks that featured Tim Wilson, whose work with Seeds of Peace brings affords people from conflict-ridden regions to meet the “enemy” face to face to work on peace-building, John Carlos, whose stance on the podium at the ’68 Olympics was an iconic moment that continues to speak to the power of resistance, as well as Lori Pompa, whose creation of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program has been transformative for Haverford students who have taken the CPGC-sponsored Inside-Out class taught by Barb Toews.  But I didn’t want to pass up the chance to hear Swarthmore’s president Rebecca Chopp and Lafayette’s president Dan Weiss (coming to a small liberal arts college near you in 2013!) speak about their vision for liberal arts colleges as we move deeper into the 21st century, or to listen to the presentation of Hayley O’Malley ’08, who currently teaches high school English and Social Studies at Notre Dame de Namur while pursuing graduate work in English at Bread Loaf.

So while my ticket was for the second session, I snuck into the first one as well.

The TEDx experience started when I ran into Alanna Phillips ’16, a first year student from Brooklyn who, like me, thought that the talks were taking place in Stokes;  as we walked across campus to Sharpless Auditorium, we spoke about her classes which range from a Perspectives in Biology course focusing on vaccines to an introductory Arabic class (for which she would be lauded by Tim Wilson who reminded the audience that English will not be the lingua franca of the world in the coming decades).  At Sharpless, I found a seat next to Chen-lei “Tom” Zhuang ’15, one of the heads of the International Students’ Organization who was nailing down details for the ISO’s first campus-wide dinner of the year, and behind Kelsey Owyang ’16, whom I first met in the Tri-College Multicultural Leadership Institute who was coming from practice for one of the two dance ensembles with which she performs.

The breadth, depth, and range of experiences, interests, and talents manifest in Alanna’s, Tom’s, and Kelsey’s investments in their Haverford educations and experiences were material manifestations of a key insight from Rebecca Chopp’s and Dan Weiss’ presentation — that at residential liberal arts institutions, students’ presence on campus 24/7 means that they are intimately involved with making and remaking the life of the community (even as Haverford students are famous for their forays into places ranging from Philadelphia to the Philippines).  As Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs work to make bodies of knowledge available to the masses, small liberal arts colleges focus on the practice of teaching students how to think creatively, critically, and in close collaboration with people who themselves bring a diversity of experiences, perspectives, and visions — thus enabling people to reconsider and recast bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing.

My sense is that each mode of exchange has its place and space:  I think a lot about Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted call to “never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Such a group may in fact constitue itself through a discussion group engendered from a MOOC course enrolling a hundred thousand people and this is one of the miracles of modern technology.  At a place like Haverford, that group might come together in a common room in Barclay, Tritton, or HCA 42 (aka “HCA 38 in Base 9″), by virtue of a tutorial group for a writing seminar, in Superlab or on Swan Field, after a show in the Black Box or Drop Shot or James House, because of a common interest in food justice or a shared love for Korean pop music (may I recommend Eruption’s Pinoy take on Psy’s “Gangnam Style”?) or an obsession with Belgian bande dessinee.

Or it might come through a love of Shakespeare:  Hayley O’Malley opened her talk by speaking of the ways in which she gets her students to get interested in reading Shakespeare, noting that for many of them, their first significant interaction with the Bard may come via Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan (understanding She’s the Man to be a free adaptation of Twelfth Night, and Mean Girls as a take on Julius Caesar). Hayley spoke about the process of adaptation itself to be a sign of cultural vitality and reinvigoration, and reminded us of the power of literature to create a common ground for people who come from radically different cultures and contexts by giving us a frame through which to view and revise the world.

In a TED video of a talk by John Hunter (www.ted.com/talks/john_hunter_on_the_world_peace_game.html), Hunter flips the script by speaking to his experiences teaching Sun Tzu’s Art of War to fourth graders who are tasked with saving the world through a World Peace Game that puts students into the role of policy makers, politicians, weather goddesses and agent provocateurs as a means of enabling them to think and work through crises and challenges ranging from global warming to arms escalation.  I’m sitting with a story that he told about a 9 year old girl who, as a defense minister for an impoverished country, singlehandedly forestalled a hostile takeover by an oil-rich neighboring nation by moving to surround that nation’s oil fields with her tanks (high on the list of quotable quotes from the afternoon “You never want to cross a nine-year-old girl armed with tanks”), thus cutting off their fuel supply.  Hunter speaks about how this led to a group discussion about the ethics of engaging in a small war to intervene against larger-scale violence;  as someone who has questioned whether any war can be seen as just, this moves me to reconsider my own world view.  Wondering what Rufus Jones might have to say about this concept so am returning to an account of his work with the American Friends Service Committee;  wondering what others took away from today’s talks, and what will come of the seeds planted this afternoon…..