The Rational (Learning Technologist) Optimist

Every now and again a book comes out that deserves to be read and discussed by your entire campus (or organization). Nudge and The Wisdom of Crowds are two such books.

May 31, 2010

Every now and again a book comes out that deserves to be read and discussed by your entire campus (or organization). Nudge and The Wisdom of Crowds are two such books. For this summer, I'm going to recommend The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, by Matt Ridley.

I can't think of a more fundamental set of questions than:

-- "Will the future be better or worse than the past?"

-- "How do our material lives differ from our grandparents, their grandparents, and their grandparents?"

-- "What have been the large causes and forces behind economic growth, why is wealth so unevenly distributed, and what can we do to insure more wealth for everyone in the future?"

Ridely tackles all of these big questions with answers and stories grounded in history, economics, and sociology. Since he specializes in none of these disciplines, (he is a zoologist by training and journalist, author and failed banker by experience), he is able to write about all of them in ways that non-specialists and non-insiders can understand and enjoy.

The Rational Optimist would be great to read and discuss on campus because the book:

-- Makes an argument that the world has gotten and will get much better, that provides plenty of room for informed debates and disagreements.

-- Backs up the arguments with history and facts, in the process educating and edifying those who will both agree and disagree with his conclusions.

-- Is written from a viewpoint that seems to be to the right of the average academic's (or at least my own) political orientation. For instance, Ridely is extremely skeptical about global warming, and even more convinced that government is more often a hindrance to social and economic progress rather than a catalyst. We all need to be open to arguments from people whose politics differ from our own.

I also think that this book would be good for students, faculty, and staff to read and discuss because its main thesis, that the world that our students and our children will inherit will be materially better in almost every conceivable way, runs directly counter to most of what our students absorb in the classroom and through the media. We want our students to be rationally optimistic, and we want them to have the abilities and knowledge to make up their own minds about the degree to which they agree or disagree with Ridley's conclusions.

Learning technologists, I believe, are predisposed to be sympathetic with the arguments presented in The Rational Optimist, as our business is all about creating a better (educational) future.

We believe:

-- That technology can help the seminar student transition from a consumer of knowledge to a producer.

-- That technology can help bring the benefits of the individualized and personalized learning that is inherent to the seminar experience to the format of a large lecture class.

-- That technology, through the Web, can help diffuse the sharing and synthesis of knowledge of the lecture format to the larger community of life-long learners.

-- That technology will allow learners who were once cut off from higher education, due to geographic or time or work or family commitments and constraints, to participate in higher education and receive their degrees through online learning.

In short, we are optimistic that technology will be one of the levers we use to both improve higher education and to scale these benefits to more people. We are convinced that technology is an essential and important ingredient in the improvement of higher education, that today's colleges are better than yesterday's, and that tomorrow's learners will be better off than today's.

Are you as optimistic about the future of higher education, and the world in general, as I am? What book would you nominate to be read and discussed this summer by everyone on your campus?


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