I had the pleasure and privilege of attending the inaugural New York Ideas festival on Monday afternoon: pleasure because it was a gathering of great minds talking about the defining issues of our times, and privilege because it was a rare opportunity to listen and reflect without being expected to decide, respond or produce at the end.
Kudos to the Aspen Institute, The Atlantic and the New-York Historical Society for bringing this event to NYC where it is more accessible to us common folk who may never make it to Aspen (not that it was widely advertised, but I suppose if it had been, I might not have been able to get in as easily as I did). It was a terrific slate of panels and panelists, all skillfully moderated to keep the ideas flowing and the discussions lively. If you missed it, you can watch about eight hours of video here.
The only panel with direct implications for my work featured Cami Anderson, Randi Weingarten, Holden Thorp, Gaston Caperton and Joel Klein, moderated by Walter Isaacson. While the first 20 minutes or so were a replay of the public school reform scuffle we all witnessed between Joel Klein and Randi Weingarten during their years together in NYC (Randi joked that they must have been married in a past life, to which Joel replied it was the first time she had left him speechless—funny), I was more taken by Cami Anderson’s thoughtful remarks. Her refusal to get bogged down in the debate between charters and neighborhood schools, and her reference to using technology to engage students “where they were their best selves,” was refreshing. In all the efforts to design interventions to fix students, there’s far too little attention given to their best selves, but in my experience their best selves are pretty awesome.
Among the many ideas that made me say “hmmm”:
- The mayors’ (Reed of Atlanta, Parker of Houston and Deputy Mayor Steel of NYC) agreed they had a higher level of accountability and a quicker feedback loop because they meet their voters in the grocery store. I couldn’t help but think of this in light of struggling urban schools where teachers so often come from outside the neighborhoods. It drove home how schools’ partnering community organizations—whose staff members often do live in the neighborhood—can shorten the feedback loop between families and schools.
- Holden Thorp’s observation that higher education is wrought with the same inequities and extremes that confound and threaten K-12 education. Though the question wasn’t asked around this topic specifically, there was a lot of discussion about the role of the media in selectively amplifying certain problems in our society. I found myself wondering what set of circumstances were responsible for the fact that when higher education is in the news, it’s usually positive, and when K-12 schools are in the news, it’s more often negative? Anyone know or have a theory?
- Jon Meacham’s remark that politicians’ over-reaction to their enemies’ criticisms could be tied to the fact that attacks are delivered real-time to the smartphones in their pockets. This led me down the well-worn path of asking whether the Internet makes us more or less connected? More inwardly or outwardly focused? (I’ve decided it just intensifies our natural inclinations.) Then I got distracted by wondering whether the “I” in iPhone stands for Internet or the first person subject. (The answer is both but Internet came first.)
- The absence of any mention of community as a core American value left me hollow during the talk among Serene Jones, Charles Blow and Anna Deavere Smith. They discussed how some of our core values—liberty, mobility, and especially fairness—were under assault, but no mention of community. This was a take-away I would happily have left behind.
Together with all my thoughts about big and little “I,” I left the festival thinking about my own core values, a little overwhelmed by how much work “I and I” (the Rastafarian linguistic innovation that captures both the singular and the plural, the individual and the collective) have to do. I guess that’s what an ideas festival is supposed to do.