Bullet Point: “The North Winning the Civil War Lead to the Modern Computer Revolution”

Today I have to retract an example I have used in several presentations. The retraction is personally an embarrassment, but I think also a great example of the power of conversation in learning.

In several presentations I have referred to James Burke, and attributed to him an example of how the North winning the US Civil War is related to the development of modern computers. The problem is, he didn’t actually say that (at least I can’t find where he said it), and, the example is wrong. It was the Union Army that had the advantage of more men in the battlefield (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Civil_War, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/19407/American-Civil-War). The problem is, I used an example and attribution from memory, and it looks like both memories were wrong. I am very sorry for that. It was a case of quickly adding an example, and then copying it from one presentation to another, and never going back and checking it. That is sloppy of me.

The reason I feel this episode demonstrates the power of conversation is in how I discovered this mistake. I gave a presentation in Boston yesterday where I used the Civil War example. Today, I got an email from someone in the audience who pointed out the error. This made me go back to find the original citation…or in this case, not find it. Aside from making it clear to me that I am not a professor of history, it also showed me the power and importance of conversation. I said something, someone else took up the conversation and through that process we came to an agreement. I learned (about history and relearned the importance of citing the source).

I have said several times in my presentations that I may well be wrong. It is my responsibility to try and get it right, and your responsibility to keep me honest. Just because a speaker is loud, doesn’t make him right. Our future is a collaborative conversation. It is the responsibility of all of us – speaker and audience, administration and staff, teacher and student – to educate and innovate. That only works if, when we hear something that is wrong or doesn’t make sense, we stand up and say so. Sure speaking out loud and in public is destined to lead to some embarrassing moments, but not speaking at all leads to irrelevance. That is a big part of doing these beyond the bullet points posts.

I am not proud of my mistake, but I am VERY proud of our profession for pointing it out.

By the way, I can’t leave without a pointer to Burke’s work. You can see just about the entirety of The Day the Universe Changed on YouTube these days. Here’s one to get you started: