I love the story Julie O'Mara tells about meeting Steve Allen. Way back in her salad days, long before O'Mara, president of O'Mara and Associates, Castro Valley, Calif., became a renowned organizational development guru and long before she served as president of ASTD, O'Mara was a public relations director for Whirlpool Corp. One of her most treasured assignments was to gain mind space and whip up consumer lust for the first Trash Masher household trash compactor. Her crowning achievement was an appearance on "The Tonight Show," demo-ing this new piece of household technology for Hi-Ho Steverino himself.
At the conclusion of O'Mara's flawless exhibition of compressing a large mound of the legendary entertainer's old publicity photos into a tidy little briquette, Allen paused, wrinkled his brow a bit and dead-panned: "In other words this machine can take 50 pounds of garbage and turn it into , 50 pounds of garbage." A testament to Allen's comic wit, timing and his ability to distill the essence.
Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen died of a heart attack last October in Encino, Calif., at the age of 78. Over the course of his life, he authored more than 54 books, wrote 7,900 songs and hosted 17 different television shows, including the Emmy Award-winning "The Tonight Show," and the Peabody Award-winning "Meeting of Minds." The latter, an Allen-invented pseudo-talk show based on the premise that chatty, small group gatherings of great thinkers from different eras?think Einstein, Socrates and da Vinci do lunch?would be great TV. It was.
Mr. Allen comes to mind now thanks to a local public radio retrospective commemorating last year's celebrity passings. The station rebroadcast an interview with Mr. Allen in which he reflected on the state of civility, civilization and the world at large.
With neither apology nor circumspection, he asserted that we have, by and large, become an unlettered lot. "We are demonstrably dumber than we were even 25 years ago," he said. Allen, who wrote a book titled, Dumbth (Prometheus, 1998), expanding on this thesis, went on to explain that unless he was performing for students at an elite university, he had to dumb-down his act considerably, lamenting that "we" as a people in general, are incredibly narrowly knowledgeable and undereducated. But on top of that, he contended, we've become lazy thinkers.
Allen's contentions make me uncomfortable. Especially when I receive e-mails asking things like, "Who is that Peter Drucker you mentioned in your column? Is he someone I should know about?" Or when a seminar participant demands, "Why are you boring us with all this theory stuff? Can't you just give us the steps and be done with it?" and later complains, "Why do you have books in the bibliography that were written in the 1980s? There's nothing we need to know from back then."
One of the differences between training and education is that our charges are indeed supposed to come away equipped to do something specific, ready to apply the 12 easy steps of noninvasive kumquat potting "back on the job" for instance. And in that context, "how to" learning is preferable to "why to." But at the same time, we are tacitly charged with helping trainees learn to think and consider?to hone the ability to make connections, to see patterns and derive action from ideas, and to be able to do well those things that as of yet, distinguish us from our automatons.
As the late Mr. Allen's laments suggest, fostering and encouraging the exercise of those abilities may be the toughest task we tackle. And done well, our most rewarding of accomplishments.
Ron Zemke is a senior contributing editor of TRAINING. firstname.lastname@example.org
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