Is OpenCourseWare good for the US?
I’m going to raid back e-mail one more time for a blog post before hopefully actually writing for the blog. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked by anyone whether I was sure OCW was good for the world as a whole–there seems to be general agreement that it is–but I am asked occasionally whether it is a good thing for the US. These questions usually come in one of two flavors: Is OCW undermining the competativeness of US univeristies?, or Is OCW a threat to national security? The national security questions can be further subdivided into questions about helping rival nations in general, and the specific issue of the release of sensitive technical information. I found myself answering these questions again via e-mail, and thought the response were worth sharing (if only to hear what counter-arguments might be out there):
US universities aren’t the pre-eminent one in the world in isolation. Their dominance depends upon a great many social and economic underpinnings, including the volume of research money coming in, the liberal, democratic society in which they exist, the opportunity for personal economic advancement they represent. Soviet schools never quite matched their US counterparts because the Soviet economy and culture didn’t support them in the way US universities are supported. Will things become more competitive in the future for US universities? Sure. Is it the biggest threat to US security out there? No.
The large numbers of people around the world living in repressive political circumstances, with little or no education or economic opportunity are a much bigger threat. Sadly, it really only takes a few guys with nothing better to do with their lives to cause a tremendous amount of damage. The only antidote I can see to this is education. The better we can educate people globally, the more empowered they’ll feel, especially in the face of globalizing trends that are very threatening. The more educated world populations become, the more they’ll demand political self-determination, the more economic opportunities they’ll be able to create, and the better they’ll be able to improve their health and well-being. They’ll create for themselves lives they value.
To what extent will OCW help this along? Couldn’t tell you, but I’m sure it’s worth the risk to US universities. And I guarantee that by the time universities around the world are positioned to threaten US universities, the societies in which they exist will no longer be threats to US security. I love the fact that OCW is huge in Iran, because I know it means we’re reaching the people interested in better lives, and the more we can help them, the sooner Iran will be less dangerous to us. By the time the University of Tehran is a threat to MIT, the Ayatollahs will be long gone. Seems like a fair trade.
There are near term dangers, in particular that we’re spreading technical knowledge faster than we’re spreading liberal democratic ideas. 9/11 was space age technology in the hands of middle age thinking, and it obviously can be a really deadly combination. But the kinds of information that can do the most harm aren’t likely to be published on OCW sites anyway.