The Floating University

The Authority of Ideas

Decoding the DNA of Education in Search of Actual Knowledge.

LAWRENCE SUMMERS, Charles W. Eliot University Professor, Harvard University, Economist, Former President of Harvard

Lesson Overview

What will historians say about our time 250 years from now? Lawrence Summers, economist, professor, former president of Harvard University, and economic adviser to President Obama, asks this question in a thought provoking lecture about the evolution of ideas and the critical importance of education in an increasingly multi-faceted world. Human welfare has accelerated in the last two centuries at an unprecedented rate, and Summers argues that all innovations, revolutions, and moral advances in society arise from pure ideas. Conventional wisdom starts as controversy, and today’s undergraduate students are tasked with advancing the agenda of human knowledge out of the dark age in which we reside and are unable to recognize.

How many people remember who ruled England when Chaucer wrote or when Milton wrote or when Shakespeare wrote or even when Dickens wrote? Lawrence Summers makes the compelling case that history is shaped by ideas and the spread of knowledge rather than empire and conquest. Every innovative policy, maverick action, and upset of the status quo is rooted in an idea, a small pebble that starts a wave that eventually reaches all shores. One hundred and fifty years ago, there was no idea of the unconscious until Freud developed the notion. Five hundred years ago, there was no idea of childhood as we now conceive it. What is it that we do that seems natural to us today that will seem barbaric 100 years from now? This question is all the more important given the rapid rise of globalization, the explosion of human interconnectedness, and an accelerating technology curve. This will be a moment in history when the world evolved from a world governed by the idea of authority to a world governed by the authority of ideas and Summers tells you how to become a part of the next great revolution.


  • Course Pack: Anthony Kronman, Education’s End. (pp. 37–90)
  • Book (must purchase): Michael Lewis, Moneyball.

Discussion Questions

(1.) Professor Summers sites the move toward economic globalization in the past thirty years as being a likely candidate for one of the defining traits of our era. But will this movement be looked back upon as the beginning of the equalization of all people, or as the beginning of a downward spiral? Do you think that the turbulence will be worked out, lifting all boats, or that we face an era of mounting exploitation increasingly governed by powerful multinational corporations? 

(2.) As Professor Summers mentions, a mere 150 years ago a large segment of the US population had no moral qualms with slavery. What about our current society do you think future generations will look back upon and judge harshly?  

(3.) Professor Summers explains in the lecture that there are no ideas beyond question. And yet the world of higher education in the United States remains firmly entrenched in systems and teaching methods that have existed for hundreds of years. Meanwhile tuition is spiraling out of control, and more studies are showing the ineffectiveness of the lecture model, the backbone of the university system. If you became the autocratic president of a university, what steps would you take to align college education with the structure of modern society and/or incorporate online technology? 

Jump over to our Facebook page to add your voice to the discussion!

About Lawrence Summers

Dr. Lawrence Summers is an American economist and influential political figure. Dr. Summers boasts a remarkable career, occupying several senior-level policy positions in the US government, the World Bank, and Harvard University. From 2009 to 2010, Dr. Summers served as the director of the White House National Economic Council for President Barack Obama. From 2001 to 2006, Summers served as the 27th president of Harvard University. Summers also served as Secretary of the Treasury for the Clinton administration from 1999 to 2001 and as chief economist of the World Bank from 1991 to 1993. Dr. Summers is currently the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.