“The Earth is round.” — Pythagoras

“The sun is the center of our solar system.” — Copernicus

“Mankind, one day, will go to the moon.” — Jules Verne

Unless you’re a member of the Flat Earth Society — yes, it does exist — or one who believes that footage of landing on the moon is some sort of conspiratorial phantasm, then you will likely accept the aforementioned statements as fact. But long before the normalization of these ideas, the masses classified them by one, two-syllable word: crazy.

The path from the “crazy” to “accepted” often requires a not-so-smooth paradigm shift. Standing in the face of popularly held beliefs is hard work. And during this transition, the leaders of the new thought streams often endure unrest, turmoil and, at times, persecution.

But suppose for a second that we skipped this phase. What if, instead, we encouraged “crazy” ideas from the start? Would it lead to uninhibited exchange and more diverse discourse?

That question is rhetorical. The answer is an emphatic yes.

Fortunately, University President Mary Sue Coleman also agrees. Just last August, in an interview with Forbes magazine, Coleman emphasized the necessity of programs that specifically “draw out … innovative thinkers … (who are) willing to take a risk on what some might call their ‘crazy ideas.’ ”

“Encouraging crazy ideas.” It has a nice ring to it. So nice, in fact, that it’s the tagline for the upcoming TEDxUofM conference scheduled for April 8, 2011.

“But what’s TEDx?”

Good question.

TED, founded in 1984, is a non-profit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” At three annual conferences in Long Beach, Calif, Palm Springs, Fla and Oxford, Great Britain, TED brings together thinkers, tinkerers and doers to share with the world the subjects they’re most passionate about in the form of an 18-minute speech, or TED talk.

The TEDx program allows communities to independently organize their own TED-like event. This will be the second year for the University’s version of the conference, and with the 1,700-seat venue in the Michigan Theatre, this year’s event has the potential to be the largest TEDx event to date. To put things in perspective: There have been more than 1,500 TEDx conferences held worldwide.

A dedicated group of students at the University is pushing this ambitious goal forward with lightning-like swiftness and Prius-like efficiency. They’re assembling a roster of presenters, performers and audience members from all walks of life, backgrounds and unique experiences that deserve to be illuminated.

The student group seeks to make this a University initiative. After all, the TED brand and the University of Michigan represent two of the most respected and influential intellectual juggernauts in modern history. It’s the perfect marriage — à la Michael Jordan and basketball, Mayaeni with an acoustic guitar or Bill Gates and computers.

While the conference encourages crazy ideas, its ultimate goal is loftier — combining thought with action and design with substance. It seeks to take participants from “hmmm” to the coveted “aha!” moment to yield tangible interdisciplinary engagement. In the spirit of TED, cooperation and collaboration — not competition — rally against the prevailing rat race mentality that grade distributions and curves perpetuate. And with recent columns like Erik Torenberg’s (Find your inner entrepreneur, 1/25/2011) and Jeremy Levy’s (Think Outside the Box, 1/25/2011), it’s clear that creativity ripples throughout the collective consciousness of today’s Wolverines.

To all of you who feel that you may have ideas “crazy” enough: This is your time. I urge students, faculty and alumni to participate in the sheer magic that is TEDxUofM by taking a personal stake in showcasing to the world what the University has to offer. This could be simply telling a friend about the event, or for those with higher aspirations, volunteering to make the vision a reality.

The mission behind the conference is modest, but its implications have the power to change the way we view and relate to others, our world and “crazy” ideas. Be ahead of the curve. Embrace the craziness from its genesis. Unless, of course, you still think that the Earth is flat. For that, I can offer no advice.

Julian Toles can be reached at jaytoles@umich.edu.

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