TED Talks You Should Be Watching

We know TED as the slightly hipper-than-thou conference of short public talks about ideas and innovation with a high WOW quotient. With its strong focus on science and technology and, to a lesser extent, art and education, it can sometimes be hard for historians to find themselves and their concerns reflected. To help out, we’ve culled the TED archives to find 10 talks that historians should at least know about, and maybe even watch. You may not always agree with every point, or find each one relevant, but every talk has something that is provocative or insightful about our profession, our talents, and our place in the larger world.

Jean-Baptiste Michel on The Mathematics of History

Thinking about Thinking: Sir Ken Robinson on education. A hugely popular TED Talk about how we undermine creativity in education. A very funny plea to allow a little more flexibility in the way that we learn.

Steven Johnson tours the Ghost Map. The charismatic Johnson talks about his book on the cholera outbreak of 1854 in London as a way of exploring ideas about how change happens.

Liz Coleman’s call to reinvent liberal arts education. Bennington President Liz Coleman’s talk is a bit dry (by the theatrical standards of TED) but it slowly builds a powerful argument for the humanities in higher education.

Niall Ferguson: The 6 killer apps of prosperity. Harvard professor Ferguson looks at the disparities in economic power in a historical perspective.

Jean-Baptiste Michel: The mathematics of history. The French mathematician throws some big numbers at historical phenomena and makes some surprising findings.

Neil MacGregor: 2600 years of history in one object. The director of the British Museum and the host of the BBC Radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, talks about how a clay cylinder can illuminate 2,600 years of multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-faith Middle Eastern histories.

Leigh Ann Wheeler: Why women’s history matters. Editor of the Journal of Women’s History (and former fundamentalist Christian) explains why well-behaved women rarely make history, but not for the reasons you think.

Maurizio Seracini: The secret lives of paintings. An engineer searches for a lost fresco of Leonardo da Vinci and confronts questions about how to narrate and display the visual layers of history.

George Dyson at the birth of the computer. Dyson casts a historian’s eye at the handwritten notebooks of engineers during the early days of the RCA computer labs at Princeton.

Eric Sanderson pictures New York—before the City. The extraordinary Mannahatta project maps New York City in 1609 in three dimensions and reveals the surprising ecology of the megacity before European colonization.

David Christian: The history of our world in 18 minutes.   Suggested by Nicholas Scott Baker @renhistorian on Twitter

Patricia Van Skaik: Advanced Photography Opens Doors to the Past  suggested by Christian van der Ven on AHA Today.

Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story. Suggested by Carolyn Newton on AHA Today and Herbie Miller on Facebook.

Laura Snyder: The Philosophical Breakfast Club. Suggested by Robert J Malone on AHA Today.

Hans Rosling: Stats that reshape your worldview, New insights on poverty, and Asia’s rise—how and when. Suggested by Chole Ireton on Facebook.

What have we missed? Let us know your favorite TED talk that might interest historians in the comments, or on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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  1. Ken Mahieu

    I think Doris Kearns Goodwin’s reflections on Lincoln and LBJ should go to the top of your list.

    Reply