The Power of Good Ideas

Robert - Ithaca, New York
Entered on March 9, 2009
Age Group: 65+
  • Listen to This I Believe on RadioPublic

  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

The Power of Good Ideas

I believe in education and the power of good ideas to improve lives. Great ideas change countless lives; they shape the course of history and give purpose to life. Everyone can point to examples. In my experience as a student, teacher, writer, and academic dean, I have seen ideas transform individual lives and foster a rich learning culture which connects people, even across millennia. Watching students learn is deeply rewarding, as is seeing them spread good ideas.

Even in the relatively short span of an academic career, I have seen ideas gain force and spread widely from discipline to discipline as they are taught, examined, and validated. Not everyone sees first hand how ideas spread, but all see the results. Great ideas enduring over centuries have become the roots of our morality, political systems, and scientific theories. In particular, the scientific method is one of our most successful great enduring ideas, a near universally accepted method to discover objective knowledge. Belief in this method has spread across cultures including those that share very few other fundamental beliefs.

The scientific method is a demonstrated basis for technological advance that has often led to better living. We all realize that the average citizen of industrially advanced nations has access to conveniences and opportunities that even kings and queens could not imagine three hundred years ago.

While I marvel at how well society creates prosperity and wealth from technical ideas, and even creates life itself, I’ve also realized that the greatest ideas are priceless and have a moral dimension. Not only is “the pen mightier than the sword”, the most ennobling ideas are about how to live life, not how to make it. I think that the desire to teach is also supported by a moral understanding that our individual actions can improve the lives of others. Parents pass on life lessons to their children and teachers pass on the knowledge needed to be a responsible citizen. Individual actions do change the world, and teaching is proof that this is so.

Lately, from my professional work in computer science, I’ve seen a new outlook in our organized aspirations to learn, teach, and know that is driven by a moral purpose. We are inventing a science and technology devoted to computer-assisted universal access to all public domain digital information, a mission that is both inspiring and intrinsically good. The moral dimension of ideas is seldom so clear.

What caused this new outlook? It is based on our brief experience with the newest “knowledge technology.” Many have already felt the vast potential of a deepening partnership of people and computers to discover structures and ideas that are inaccessible to the unaided mind. We have imagined the future and seen how computers can help us implement the scientific method and find objective knowledge. This understanding leads us by logic and a sense of what is inherently good to empower our digital partners in ways not open to flesh.

I conjecture that this gathering force is a material consequence of what I and many others believe about good ideas, open minds, and objective education. I believe we are assembling a constellation of ideas that will profoundly change the course of intellectual history. We will be judged by the direction of that course.