August 29, 2003

NAJAF, DEJA VU

New York

First, reports were that 15 people were dead, then the assessment was 75, then 80. The last article I read about today's horrendous bombing in Najaf, Iraq was that at least 125 had died and over 140 were injured. It was bad enough when it looked like 15 were lost.

This is a grim repetition of last week's terrible news of terrorist actions against civilians in Iraq. It is not yet clear who is responsible. Goodness, all day we didn't even know how many had been brutally killed. Ahmed Chalabi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, suggested that remaining Ba'athists are probably to blame. Others propose that outside forces such as Al Qaeda may be at work. In either case, the deed is monstrous, just as it was when the target was the United Nations headquarters and Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. It is also highly damaging to the Coalition's goals.

The tragedy this afternoon has an added gloss. The target was religious as well as political, the Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, a prominent Shi'ite cleric, and the Imam Ali Mosque. The bomb exploded as the attendees were leaving the Mosque after prayers. No matter which religion you subscribe to, the bombing of congregants in an established house of worship should fill you with disgust. When one realizes that this site was the Shi'ite equivalent -- as described by Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution -- of St. Peter's in Rome, the enormity of the crime is clear.

I'm not sure what to surmise from the activities of today, other than evidently the status quo in Iraq will not do. A population that has limited electricity and water, witnessed an overall breakdown of civil order and numerous outbreaks of terrorism, and now sees one of its holiest places desecrated by violence, will be compelled to blame all involved, especially those who claim to be in charge. Whether the many deaths are the fault of elements of the former regime or infiltrators bent on terrorism, this is very much an American problem whose answer is, unfortunately, hardly obvious.

What I do know is that any city that is exposed to this sort of random -- and desecrating -- violence, will find its citizens paralyzed. I am trying to imagine how I would respond if a major church, synagogue or mosque in New York, let alone one larger and even more significant than St. Patrick's Cathedral, were violated by this sort of terrorism. Are the people of Najaf now able to function? Can they work? Gather? Are they trembling at home? This is not only an attack upon an important religious leader and his followers, like all terrorism this is an attack on urban life.

Copyright 2003 Hilary Lewis. All rights reserved.

Please see author's news.

August 26, 2003

MORE IS MORE

New York

The New York Times magazine published a cover story on Harvard President Lawrence Summers Sunday, which among other things, examined how Summers's principal task is a massive expansion of the Harvard campus that will in effect double the size of the university. Certainly, developing 260 acres of property and remaking a number of schools and departments within Harvard is a considerable assignment. One would imagine that there may be a corresponding increase in students and faculty as well. Now that would be something -- giving an opportunity to twice the number of students, professors and administrators to be at Harvard.

Something also covered by The New York Times, but even more so in the recent issue of Wired, is a project at MIT that is creating extraordinary educational opportunities of a very different kind. This initiative, OpenCourseWare, is that university's ongoing effort to place all course materials at MIT online and free of charge. Currently, several hundred courses are up and running. By 2007, the Institute expects to have the entire course catalog on the Internet. No small feat.

Wired describes how students with few resources from Vietnam to Tennessee have already tapped into the MIT service with impressive results. MIT's site claims that users from 202 countries and city-states have visited the OpenCourseWare website and have submitted 4,100 email responses. In many cases, the students use the course materials to supplement their studies at other institutions, from community colleges to high schools to state-run universities. What is made clear in the article is that MIT's apparently altruistic decision to launch the curriculum to the world is making a big difference to students and teachers around the globe. While the simple use of these materials does not an MIT education make, as is explicitly stated on the OpenCourseWare site, there is significant evidence that this information is upgrading teaching and learning among those who have used it.

Think about it. MIT has given away some of its most valuable intellectual property. In return, MIT has markedly established itself as the definitive "textbook" in a vast number of educational areas. Surely, that has value. When I first learned of the program, my initial reaction was concern about the exploitation of the output of the faculty. I've since re-thought that position. Yes, individual professors have produced courses based on years of their own training and thinking. Definitely, they should benefit from their work being presented to a wider public. It took awhile, but after reading the Wired article it finally hit me. Just as MIT is expanding its brand globally via OpenCourseWare, so are these academics. Years ago, I was fortunate enough briefly to teach at MIT. OpenCourseWare makes me wish I were still there with the option of broadcasting ideas to a very large audience of students.

The situations at both these esteemed institutions of higher learning deserve praise. Each case represents greater possibilities for a larger number of individuals to benefit from their considerable offerings, which should be the goal of any great college or university, right? It makes me wonder, however, whether this view is shared among all such institutions. After all, the more people who participate at these places, the less elite the institutions become. The question must be, should that even matter?

Reading about impoverished students poring over that MIT web site in order to become expert in computer science, gives me great hope that we can look forward to a future where far more people will be tremendously well-educated. That seems not only a very worthy goal, but also a very valuable one that will benefit society at large. MIT's investment (well supported by philanthropic entities) should produce a sizable payback for all involved. Perhaps many other universities will follow suit. (Some already have.)

Given how necessary advanced knowledge is today, it seems that we can ill afford to limit the scope of our best educational institutions's reach. Kudos to MIT. I'd love to see a world where the average individual has received some education from our finest "elite" schools.

For more information please visit MIT'S OpenCourseWare site.

Copyright 2003 Hilary Lewis. All rights reserved.

Please see author's news.

August 24, 2003

Lessons from the Blackout

LIGHTS OUT

New York

Post-blackout, New York has come back to normal. People are in elevators, at home blasting their air-conditioners and down in the subways once again. Like most shocks to the system, what is left is a memory, an impression, but typical behavior overrides most of the newly learned fears. What was terrifying to do a day or two after the lights went out, seems just average by now. We are even eating dairy products again.