The American higher education system is probably the finest in the world. Nowhere else can you spend four years dabbling in everything from econometrics to medieval architecture, and come out superbly equipped to shout answers to Trivial Pursuits questions from behind the huge pizza in your mouth.
No, seriously, a US undergraduate college is paradise for a non-specialist temperament. If you have no clue what you want to be when you grow up, you get to try out all kinds of fields for two years before choosing a major. And, if you charted your career plan when you were eight, it’s an excellent place to test your certainty. The idea is to broaden your horizons, and with the backing of the world’s best educational resources, it works.
Life being what it is, the degree you earn often has no bearing whatsoever on the work you end up doing. Majors in Victorian studies might end up on Wall Street, and Economics toppers make great radio jockeys. But as our then-President at Bryn Mawr College said, the point of your years there is to “make the inside of your head a more interesting place to be for the rest of your life.”
After my BA I never did apply to graduate school, partly because, in my non-specialist’s view, the ideal education would consist of several BAs instead. I figured I had time for maybe five more, before creeping senility made me unfit to play a decent game of Trivial Pursuit—but I never got around to another BA either. So every now and then I have a strong urge to run back to college as one of those ‘students of non-traditional age’ whom I remember thinking of as sadly earnest drips (I am filled with remorse and take it back).
Circumstances do not permit, however, so now when I have such an urge, I shuffle over to the keyboard and type in http://www.ted.com/tedtalks/. Then I put on my headphones, sit back, and enjoy the equivalent of sitting gape-mouthed in a classroom while a particularly brilliant professor presents a particularly fascinating talk consisting of cutting edge thought, in a concise twenty minutes or so. What I actually hear and see might indeed be a lecture by an academic, or else a performance by a virtuoso musician, or the account of a hair-raising journey of exploration, or a piece of interesting research.
The annual TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Monterey, California, curated by a Pakistan-born, India-schooled Brit named Chris Anderson, collects about a thousand interesting people for a few days during which they present and exchange ideas. They comprise some of the world’s most skilled and creative minds, and their contributions are recognised and supported with vast resources (like the $100,000 TED Prize, awarded this year to war photographer James Nachtwey, biologist Dr E.O Wilson, and President Bill Clinton).
TED, owned by Anderson’s The Sapling Foundation, puts the best of the talks on the internet as video and audio presentations for the rest of the world to enjoy, at the rate of two or three a week. They take a while to download, but they’re worth it. Listen to Malcolm Gladwell on the business secrets of spaghetti sauce; or teenager Eva Vertes, who is changing the course of cancer research; or professors Dan Gilbert and Barry Schwartz on happiness and choice; or Ben Saunders on his solo expedition to the North Pole; or Sir Ken Robinson on creativity…
If TED is new to you, as it was to me, you’re in for a treat. Watch all the talks, and keep track of new posts. If you’re going to be stuck with yourself forever, you may as well make it fun.