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iDealism

“…The mission of Duke University is… to advance the frontiers of knowledge and contribute boldly to the international community of scholarship… to provide wide ranging educational opportunities, on and beyond our campuses, for traditional students, active professionals and life-long learners using the power of information technologies…”

— Excerpt from The Mission of Duke University

A program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is changing the world. So far, the University has published over 900 courses from 33 departments, including tests, problem sets, syllabi, course notes and video lectures on the Internet, free and available to anyone with a computer to access as part of its “OpenCourseWare” initiative: http://ocw.mit.edu/index.html. It is easily the best thing to happen for information since the discovery of the movable-type printing press. Yet Duke, its ambitious mission statement notwithstanding, appears more concerned with undergraduate nymphets spreading baby oil on each other than with the spread of knowledge.

Providing “free, searchable, access to MIT’s course materials for educators, students, and self-learners around the world,” OCW allows people from Borneo to Baghdad to watch eccentric professors literally stake their lives on the principle of energy conservation (using a wrecking ball released from a fixed height on the other side of the room) without paying a dime.

The ultimate motivation for this project is global progress. Underlying the process of making knowledge freely available is the assumption that it not only increases the pool of prospective innovators, but also improves the quality of the knowledge itself. It is an illustration of the belief that humanity’s slow journey toward truth is best served through exhibitionism and criticism. As Socrates rightly saw, knowledge is virtue, and its spread more often than not leads to individual and collective betterment.

The comments from users of OCW around the world posted on MIT’s website speak for themselves:

“Thank you very much for OpenCourseWare! This is a wonderful initiative, something I’ve been dreaming about! It gives great opportunities for studying new things and improving my current education. Commercial distance education is too expensive for people in the country where I live, but what you did make: quality education really available. Thank you especially for the video lectures and courses that have study materials… And having those in both text and video would be beyond dreams. Thank you, thank you, thank you again!” — Azerbaijan

“The OCW initiative has again proved that MIT is the leader when it comes to creating and disseminating the knowledge. Sitting at home I could I could enrich my knowledge in ‘n’ number of fields thanks to the superb, user-friendly notes prepared by MIT professors and students. I am in the field of physics and was keen to delve into the domain of finance and management. Sloan’s courses on OCW helped me a lot not only to build the fundamentals but also to get a deeper insight into various aspects of finance.” — Iran

“The MIT OCW program is a generous and far-sighted initiative that will do more to change the world for the better than a thousand Iraq-style invasions. It does much to restore my faith in the enlightenment of the American people and their great experiment in democracy. This program should be emulated by every university worthy of the name.” — Leigh Pascoe, self-learner in Paris, France

But MIT cannot single-handedly fight poverty, ignorance and fundamentalism. The OCW mission statement contains a plea for help from other universities: “The hope is that one day, by sharing MIT’s course materials, along with our experience thus far in developing the MIT OCW publication process, we will inspire other institutions to openly share their course materials, creating a worldwide web of knowledge that will benefit humanity.”

James B. Duke would have been ecstatic to hear of OCW; he would have had our courses online without delay. In his founding Indenture of the University, he advocated pursuits that would “most help to develop our resources, increase our wisdom, and promote human happiness.”

The question now is whether or not our current leaders will be faithful to his heroic mission, or if they will allow this institution to slide even farther into the corporate morass. Dr. Brodhead, your choice for the future is clear: iPods or iDealism?

Matt Gillum is a Trinity senior. His column appears Wednesday.

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