The Floating University

The Authority of Ideas


I. Meet Larry Summers

A. Summers is approaching the Great Big Ideas course from a different perspective than other lectures. Rather than talking about his field of economics, he's speaking about the nature of knowledge and the importance of education. 

B. Summers grew up in a family of economists, became a professor of economics at MIT and Harvard, went into government and worked at the World Bank, became the Secretary of The Treasury under Bill Clinton, went back to Harvard to serve as president, and then served as Obama's Chief Economic Adviser for the first two years of his administration.  

C. Summers has accrued the perspectives of academia, government, economics, and social science. 

D. A high school education includes training in the humanities and sciences, but does not include an exposure to the social sciences. 

1. Scientific approaches to the study of how societies function have greatly enhanced our understanding of the world.

2. Learning about the social sciences at the university level becomes then even more important

II. A Philosophy of Education

A. Summers received an honorary degree, and during the commencement speech the president extolled how rigorous the university's academic approach was, but then whiffed and said it all added up to understanding each other's perspectives better.

B. Summers was let down by this statement, as he believed that debate, analysis, and study brought us closer to the truth, which gives us a better understanding of the world, which leads to a better world. 

C. A college education is so important in order to bring humanity closer to the truth and thus making life better for all people. 

D. Summers will extrapolate this thought by examining the importance of ideas, the trends that define our time, and your role in the university.

III. The Importance of Ideas

A. What is remembered of any society in the long-run? People remember Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and Dickens more than any political rulers of their eras. The same goes for the great French Impressionists, Isaac Newton's work, Einstein's reconceptualization of the universe, etc. 

1. Helen Vendler: "It is for their works of creation that ultimately civilizations are remembered."

2. Therefore it is the ideas that you will be exposed to in the remainder of your education that will become most important.

B. Ideas Shape the Course of Nations

1. Most of us will not be able to have the impact of a Shakespeare or a Picasso. But what is it that shapes the way our nations operate, affecting the lives of millions?

2. John Kennedy was not a typical Harvard undergrad, but he did write an undergraduate thesis called Why England Slept, a critique of Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler in the lead up to WWII. 

3. The ideas that JFK developed at college shaped US foreign policy for a generation. His approaches to foreign policy as POTUS were a result of his academic work: the restraint he learned helped him through the Cuban Missile Crisis, though some believe his anti-appeasement philosophy led to US involvement in Vietnam. 

C. Ideas Shape the Nature of the Economy

1. Economists and political leaders debate the Great Recession and how to improve the economy, but they take it as a given that the goal is to increase the Gross Domestic Product. The GDP wasn't always the goal, however; it was conceptualized by economic research 100 years ago and taught to generations of students, who learned that demand had a lot to do with the health of economies. 

2. The works of British economist John Maynard Keynes were taught at Harvard and Yale in the 1950s over alumni protests that his ideas were part of a Communist plot. 20 years later Richard Nixon said that "We are all Keynesians now." 

3. Though the US moved away from Keynesian ideas in the 1980s we are moving back in the direction with the economic downturn. 

4. Regardless of whether Keynes is in vogue or not, it is ideas that become the conventional wisdom that shapes the choices of nations.

D. Ideas Shape the Attitudes of Society 

1. We take the idea of the unconscious for granted, but it was invented less than 150 years ago by Sigmund Freud. 500 years ago there was no idea of childhood as we now conceive it. In both cases ideas have had profound life-changing effects.

2. The sophistication of existing principles can have a huge effect. Major League Baseball recruitment, for instance, has been transformed by the introduction of modern statistical analysis.

3. Competition leads to inspiration, as is the case with the MLB example.  

4. The concept of the double-blind experiment is one of the most important innovations in medicine in the 20th century.

E. Ideas Shape the Development of Individual Well-Being

1. The economic return to being better educated is greater now than it was even a generation ago. There life expectancy gap in education has also doubled in the same amount of time. 

2. Large parts of the world have changed in the last 60 years, moving from the idea of authority to the authority of ideas. 

3. There is a staggering amount of potential opening up, but only for those who respect and develop ideas.

IV. The Trends That Define Our Era

A. What will a historian 250 years from now say about the half century that we are currently in the middle of?

B. Most people can't distinguish very clearly between what happened in 1675-1700 from what happened in 1700-1725, for example. 

C. Catastrophic events might stand out in our era if climate change is not curbed, or if nuclear proliferation ends in war.

D. Summers does not expect disaster to be our legacy, however, pointing instead to three aspects of historical development that are mainly favorable and reflective of the power of ideas. 

E. Globalization

1. We are progressing toward a global economy and society. 

2. Over most of economic history, there was little progress in living standards. Even a 100% improvement from classical Athens to Victorian London works out to a negligible annual growth rate. 

3. During the Industrial Revolution progress became fast enough to where it was noticeable within a single human lifespan. For the first time in human history the average conditions of life were noticeably better at the end of a lifetime than at the beginning. 

4. The Industrial Revolution was constituted by applying scientific ideas to farming, clothing production, and construction.

5. The Industrial Revolution was propelled by innovations put forth by incentivized humans, and benefited from the spread of ideas through emulation and imitation. Competition, argument, debate, and trial and error pushed everything forward. 

6. The Industrial Revolution led to 1% growth rates in the stand of living a year. In the span of a single lifetime, living standards might have risen by 40-50%. This was unimaginable compared to the past, but very little compared to what was to come.

7. America turned out to be particularly innovative and successful in deploying technology, and the culture rewarded entrepreneurial success in an unprecedented way. This led to standard of living growth rates double that of the British Industrial Revolution. Within a human lifetime the standard of living would multiply by a factor of 3 or 4.

8. This success led to the United States becoming the preeminent world power in the first half of the 20th century. 

9. Now in China and India, annual GDP growth rates are approaching 7, 8, or 9%. Einstein said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. In one human lifetime, living standards in China could increase by a factor of 100.

10. Close to 40% of the planet lives in China and India. The profoundly rapid growth they are enjoying has a great deal to do with their ability to open up, emulate and learn from companies, economies, and individuals who are producing with more sophisticated ideas. Their systems are allowing people to benefit more from their own success. 

11. This unprecedented growth won't continue forever, as a lot of it is catching up with the West. Standards of living in China are still where they were in the US in 1920, so there is plenty of catch-up room left. 

12. The growth in China could, however, be hindered by environmental pressures, economic disaster similar to the problems the US encountered in the 1930s, and mounting political dissonance from within an authoritarian government that must adapt to the needs of a high-information world economy. 

13. No one knows how the globalization story will end, but it will be one of the biggest legacies of our era, and if you want to be a part of history you have to understand China and India. 

F. The Scientific Revolution

1. For much of history, medical advances have happened as much through accident as through understanding. Fleming found penicillin by accident, as did Jenner with the Small Pox vaccine. We are on the brink of a much better approach to understanding human health.

2. In the last decade we have sequenced the human genome. This is a book of several million pages that contains a whole new level of rigor in understanding the disease process. It is imaginable that we will find cures for dementia, heart disease, and cancer. We will come to understand brain function better and better. 

3. Information technology will have as profound an impact on our lives as medical technology. Summers remembers seeing a carphone for the first time in 1988 and being blown away, and just 23 years later there are cell phones all over the planet. In many areas there will never be landlines created, as cell phones are a leap frog technology. 

4. It was a breakthrough 40 years ago when sociologists realized that it was possible for almost any two people in the world to be connected with only six links. Online social networks are allowing people to move through these connections very rapidly. The effects of this are as yet unknown, but are likely to be very large. 

5. 60 years ago people didn't think there would be demand for more than 10 computers. The inventors of the copying machine didn't think it would take off because mimeograph was widely available. 

6. A feature of exponential growth is that the increment of change every year gets larger and larger. This also happens with knowledge. Even if each bit of knowledge expands at the same rate, the total accretion of knowledge becomes greater. As a result we are likely to see as much scientific progress in the next 25 years as we did during all of the 1900s.

7. This scientific progress and the radical changes in standards of living are inextricably linked. 

G. Expanding the Circle of Compassion

1. A third legacy of our era is an ever-widening sphere of human concern and compassion.

2. 50 years ago there would have been very few or none African American students at many universities, and many had very few women.

3. 50 years ago homosexuality was a crime in all 50 states, and the idea that gay people could openly join the military and get married would have been inconceivable. 

4. The idea that people with mental illnesses had rights, or that those with serious medical conditions had a right to be diagnosed and treated, were not norms in our society. 

5. 150 years ago, people took slavery for granted as natural and morally neutral. It's unlikely we've reached an apex of civilization now; what do we do today that will seem barbaric in the future? It might be how we treat the old, the young, the poor, or animals, or how superstition still guides our response to important human problems. Whatever it turns out to be, it is very likely that something we take for granted as normal today will shock the consciences of future generations as ours are shocked by certain things taken for granted by our ancestors. 

6. Our consciences will be changed by individuals, protests, ideas, philosophies, and better thinking than the thinking that came before. 

V. The University

A. You are at a university to be educated, understand thinking better, and to think better yourself. This is not a chance you will have throughout your lifetime. Even if your job if enormously fulfilling, it will have many tasks that will not be about thinking. While at a university you have a chance to focus solely on improving your mind. 

B. Taking Advantage of the Opportunities at a University

1. During a freshman seminar that Summers taught at Harvard while president, a student openly questioned Summers' grasp on global economics. This impressed Summers: In how many institutions could someone who had been there for five weeks tell the president that he didn't know what he was talking about? (Summers insisted that he was right, though.)

2. Universities stand out as places that really are about the authority of ideas. This is apparent when professors are pleased when students successfully undermine their theories with new evidence, and when professors like it best when students discover their own topics to study. 

C. There Are No Ideas Beyond Questions

1. Academic freedom is extremely important, but this does not include freedom from criticism. The greatest mistakes arise when people are afraid to tell the emperor that he has no clothes. 

2. Every idea should be open for discussion, but a balance must be struck between the idea that some ideas are off-limits and beyond challenge and the idea that all ideas are equally valid, and that it all comes down to a matter of perspective. There is usually a right answer, and that answer is found by debating, looking at evidence, and thinking things through.

D. At a university the authority of ideas takes prominence, and it is up to you whether or not to pursue your own ideas.  The students who get the most out of a college education are those that forge their own path and contribute to the communal body of knowledge while keeping their minds open to change and refutation.