“PowerPoint corrupts absolutely”

I can’t believe I missed this critique of PowerPoint in Wired by Edward Tufte, which came out a year ago:

Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication. These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.

Yet slideware -computer programs for presentations -is everywhere: in corporate America, in government bureaucracies, even in our schools. Several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint are churning out trillions of slides each year. Slideware may help speakers outline their talks, but convenience for the speaker can be punishing to both content and audience. The standard PowerPoint presentation elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.

Of course, data-driven meetings are nothing new. Years before today’s slideware, presentations at companies such as IBM and in the military used bullet lists shown by overhead projectors. But the format has become ubiquitous under PowerPoint, which was created in 1984 and later acquired by Microsoft. PowerPoint’s pushy style seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers. Could any metaphor be worse? Voicemail menu systems? Billboards? Television? Stalin?

Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something.

In a business setting, a PowerPoint slide typically shows 40 words, which is about eight seconds’ worth of silent reading material. With so little information per slide, many, many slides are needed. Audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another. When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships. Visual reasoning usually works more effectively when relevant information is shown side by side. Often, the more intense the detail, the greater the clarity and understanding. This is especially so for statistical data, where the fundamental analytical act is to make comparisons.

via Wired 11.09: PowerPoint Is Evil.

He goes on.  Is he right?

I myself use it only when I am giving a presentation in which I need to show and then discuss works of  art.  But I don’t use it for my lecture outlines.  And I don’t like to turn out the lights, thus cutting off my contact with my audience and surely inducing them to fall asleep.

The rest of what I said: on colleges’ responsibilities

The unedited version of one of the questionsin the interview the Washington Examiner did with me:

3. Do colleges and universities bear a responsibility to nurture the spiritual lives of their students? If so, how are they doing, or how could they do better?

I think distinctly religious colleges do, such as Patrick Henry College where I work and the array of Catholic institutions in the D.C. area. I don’t think secular or state-funded universities do, and when they try they usually spin out some sort of generic therapeutic spirituality that only makes things worse. I would just as soon they stay out of it.

The real responsibility, though, falls on individual professors, and this is true whether it is a religious or a secular school. It comes back, again, to vocation. God works through human beings–nonbelievers as well as believers–in their callings. As a teacher, I am called to love and serve my students. I do this by teaching them my subject. But I dare not corrupt them, harm them, or use them for my own ends. My impact on their spiritual condition may be minimal or great. At Patrick Henry College, I can be more intentional about that than when I taught at a secular college, but all teachers are part of a vast web of influences in their students’ lives. A heavy responsibility comes with that.

Point/counterpoint: Military Spending

In our efforts to raise the quality of discourse in American politics, let us try something different. We will take two arguments on opposing sides of an issue. We will then discuss which makes the best case.

Kirk Anderson alerted me to two columns on military spending. One argues that in our zeal to cut government expenditures, we had better not touch the defense budget. The other argues that any attempt to cut government spending must cut the military.

Which view do you think is right? Can you deal with the opposing arguments, showing why they are wrong?

Maslow’s hierarchy has a new pinnacle of human achievement

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been a landmark of psychology, used in education and even church ministries.  Now some psychologists are revising his model, making the pinnacle not “self-actualization” but, in the words of a Christianity Today column by Elrena Evans, “something more self-giving”:

Psychologists are considering a shift to famed psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Long a fixture in the training of educators and workforce managers, Maslow’s pyramid argues that humans’ basic needs (food, water, air, sleep) must be met before they can begin to seek other, “higher” fulfillments. It makes sense: bereft of basic needs, people can’t concentrate on bigger goals. I saw this pyramid again and again when in college, minoring in education, used to stress that a child who feels hungry, tired, and unsafe is really not going to care about learning algebra, and with good reason.

Now, though, a team of four researchers headed by Arizona State University social psychology professor Douglas T. Kenrick is challenging the top tier of Maslow’s pyramid. They write in a paper recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science that Maslow’s ultimate goal, the pinnacle of human achievement, is not “self-actualization” or the accomplishment of such higher-order functions as creativity, problem-solving, and morality. It is — wait for it — parenting.

via Her.meneutics: Why Parenting May Be Your ‘Highest’ Calling.

The reasoning is evolutionary:  Life’s biological goal cannot be self-focused, but has to be the perpetuation of the species.  Still, I think the re-focus is more in line with Christianity.   To get our moral thinking away from righteousness being just private conformity to rules and instead being an orientation to other people–loving and serving one’s neighbor– would be a big advance, and I’m glad if Maslow can help towards that end.

Indeed, the old hierarchy included “morality” but classified that as “self-actualization” rather than as loving and serving the neighbor.  Even non-parents can find the “pinnacle” of life in selfless service, since it  animates not just parenthood but all vocations.

The rest of what I said: on religion & facts

There wasn’t room for everything that I said in that interview the Washington Examiner did with me. So as not to waste anything, I’ll post the outtakes here:

1. A recent Pew study found that atheists and agnostics scored higher on a religion quiz than did people of faith. How important are facts to faith? And/or can God thrive when his followers lack an understanding of the facts?

Some people think religion is just a matter of what goes on in their heads. They make up something that works for them, they think, selecting from the great cosmic smorgasbord to construct a kind of spirituality that makes them feel better. Though Christians are guilty of this too, Christianity does not work like that. It teaches that God became Man, that Jesus is literally God in the flesh. And that somehow when He was executed by torture He bore the sins of the world, taking our punishment and letting His goodness count as ours. And that He rose again, physically, from the dead.

The whole Christian faith rests on facts. We can theorize, we can intellectualize, we can debate abstractions. But what if these things really happened, as historical objective facts? Then the theoretical discussions don’t really matter.

One of my pet peeves in theology is the way many Christians approach the problem of evil, how a good God could allow all of these bad things to happen. That’s a profound question. But the answers given often assume that God is some abstract deity looking down on the world from above. But Christianity teaches that God came into this world of suffering, that He Himself not only suffered but took the world’s evil into Himself, and that He redeemed it!

Not that this answers all of the questions, but it certainly complicates the issue and underscores the difference between the Christian God and God as most people conceive Him.

When conservative Christians were politically liberal

My point was apparently not clear in yesterday’s post about “government as a force for secularization.”
I’m trying to think through the history of conservative Christian’s stance towards politics. There was indeed a time when many if not most conservative Christians were politically liberal.

I grew up in the buckle of the Bible belt, as they say, in small town Oklahoma, where most people were Southern Baptists. (Not us, we belonged to a liberal denomination.) But virtually everyone was liberal politically. There was no Republican Party in the county where I grew up. They were liberal when it came to economic policy. We thrived on government pork barrel projects, with our long-ensconced representatives building dams and lakes and waterways and all kinds of stuff. If there was a problem, we wanted the government to take care of it. And the reason was not resentment of Abraham Lincoln or anything racial. It was fidelity to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. He brought us out of the depression, put us to work, started rural electrification, and on and on. None of our political heroes, from FDR to LBJ, did anything to challenge our Christian faith. It never occurred to them to do so.

Then came the Vietnam war. We were good LBJ Democrats, supporting him in his civil rights bill, the Great Society, and his crusade to bring Democracy to Vietnam. But then came another kind of liberal: The cultural liberal. The hippies and the yippies and the yahoos. Our boys volunteered to fight in Vietnam, but now these people are vilifying them. Then the Democrats started being on their side! Then we were getting things from our government like outlawing school prayer. Some of us saw the wisdom of that, but then the Supreme Court legalized abortion. The tide turned. As I heard people say, I didn’t leave the Democratic party; the Democratic party left me. We became Reagan Democrats. And now my county is solidly Republican.

Of course conservative Christians can be liberal politically. That was arguably the norm up until a few decades ago. But now things have changed. Most conservative Christians, not all, but most, are now alienated from their government, which in their eyes has become a force for secularization. Now they want a smaller government to minimize its power to threaten their way of life and their beliefs.

Could the Democrats win them back by focusing on economic and political liberalism, without the cultural liberalism? I suspect so. ButI don’t think that can happen now.


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