So we live in a time when we look for wisdom from mega-entrepreneurs. I admit that they’re usually really smart and fascinating--not to say full of contradictions. Peter Thiel, for one, tells talented young people to skip college and get right down to entrepreneuring, while at the same time being convinced of the enduring relevance for his business and personal life of the philosophers Rene Girard and Leo Strauss--both of whom he learned about in college.
The mega-entrepreneur of the year is probably Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon and very recently bought the Washington Post. Certainly lots of people are focusing their hopes and fears on what Bezos might do next.
Here’s one hopeful sign: Bezos has put PowerPoint out of his business. One reason is that he has a humane man’s aversion to cruelty. Think about how much time sophisticated Americans have spent enduring the torture of literally billions and billions of PowerPoint presentations over the last couple of decades. Where PowerPoint goes, intellectual enjoyment disappears. From my perspective as a teacher, what I mostly see is that PowerPoint makes both teachers and students lazy, as “coherent narratives” are transformed into bullet points. The era of PowerPoint is also the era of the buzzword or buzz-phrase, such as “disruptive innovation.” It is also, of course, the era of management-speak, “branding,” and such.
(Now my techno-savvy colleagues might well reply that the real issue is that I'm too old, stupid, and lazy to be an effective PowerPointer. I admit I've done nothing to prove them wrong.)
Bezos demands that his employees not use PowerPoint. Instead, they’re required to write “6-page narrative memos.” Before the meeting begins, everyone takes the time to read the whole memo. That, of course, doesn’t take that long, and reading, more than listening, focuses attention on actual arguments. And, of course, the person who writes the memo has to make make sense or be subject to attack, ridicule, or even being fired. Bezos has returned us to the obvious thought that the point of sentences and paragraphs and such is to facilitate clear and critical thinking. He noticed that too many of his employees were having so much fun designing PowerPoint slides that they were forgetting to think.
The truth is, of course, that PowerPointing, tweeting, texting, and even emailing and blogging have been hell on thinking.
(Yes, blogging. Many erudite scholars have questioned my obsession with getting ill-considered and error-filled ideas out there through the blog. Blogging can only be justified by the evangelical impetus to spread the good [and bad] news before it's too late.)
We can thank Bezos for reminding us of one point among many of a liberal education. Much of that education in philosophy, literature, political philosophy, theology, and so forth involves writing short essays. In the best case, those essays make an argument based on an argument, often embodied in a literary narrative. Now someone could object that it’s not “critical thinking” merely to repeat what Socrates or Shakespeare say. But it turns out that you have to be very attentive and patient to figure out what they’re saying, and that focused attention on reading and leisurely thinking about what you’re read actually gets your mind to work the way it should. The repetition of what Socrates says by another person is never simply a repetition. (If you read closely, you can even notice that when Socrates says he's repeating himself he's not really repeating himself.)
An argument isn’t only a matter of “logic,” but a nuanced attention to psychological detail and, more generally, actually seeing for yourself what people and the world are like. It turns out that the best philosophers, poets, and so forth are actually more empirical than the rest of us. And it’s great to see that the employees at Amazon are being led in a genuinely empirical direction.
What's the takeaway for teaching? Well, maybe every professor should have to provide students with a 6-page essay he's written on the relevant material each class. That might lead students to treat professors too much like employees. They already think of themselves too much as consumers. But still, surely this "teaching method" might be defended as better than lecturing or PowerPointing. It would also remedy the current oversupply of college teachers.
Maybe students should have to write a well-crafted 6-page "narrative memo" every week. And class time would be all about talking about what each student wrote. Our educational system would have to be innovatively disrupted--in ways that might be more expensive (but at least the money would be focused on learning)--to make that possible. We could tell the students and the other relevant "stakeholders" that we're getting them ready to work at Amazon.
Let’s hope that the disruptive innovator Bezos has shown us the beginning of the end of PowerPoint