Yale is home both to Dwight Hall, the nation’s largest student-run network of service organizations, and legendary scholarship. Yale embodies a unique commitment to learning and human progress. Inscribed on the wall of Linsly-Chittenden Hall is a proverb: “Through wisdom is a house builded and by understanding it is established and by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all pleasant and precious riches.”
This idea that education — or wisdom — is the ultimate path to success, prosperity and right action dates at least to ancient Greece and was preserved though the ages most notably in the cultural and religious traditions of Judaism. And it remains as true now as it once was. Knowledge does contribute to human flourishing; it leads to advances in technology, standards of living and is the ultimate route to self-improvement.
Since Yale is noted for its social activism, one might wonder why it has not used its most powerful wellspring of good — knowledge — for larger human benefit. The rapid growth of the Internet has led to unprecedented opportunities for doing so. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology OpenCourseWare project has published 1,250 of its courses free on its Web site. It offers syllabi, tests, lecture notes, everything, with such a humanitarian mission in mind. Anyone with access to the Web is able to play in this amazing reservoir of knowledge. Farmers in Zimbabwe can learn better management techniques, and geniuses who might otherwise languish unpolished in remote areas have the opportunity to study anything from computer science to econometrics, — and to perhaps make a significant contribution to human civilization that would not have been otherwise possible.
A promising but still unattained outgrowth of the OpenCourseWare initiative is to make sure that human moral and political progress keeps pace with technology. Although the human lot would no doubt be better served if more of the world’s citizens lived in comfort and prosperity, this certainly is not enough to ensure a more positive version of the future.
While MIT is peerless in technical knowledge, it cannot match institutions like Duke, Yale, Harvard, et al. when it comes to exporting the humanities and the secular values of the West — democracy, liberty, individual rights, etc. — that they contain. These values have been tested over the last half-millennium in a ceaseless process of cultural evolution, and though they are not without problems, they have allowed the West to become the place many people on earth would most like to live.
Only when other universities join MIT in publishing their courses online will the OpenCourseWare project be able to achieve its goal of making a truly comprehensive, first-rate body of knowledge available at no charge to many of the world’s citizens. Yale could play an important role in this by bringing very different academic strengths to the table. Providing Yale’s courses on philosophy, history and the arts free on the Internet would do much to domesticate the information revolution, and perhaps these humanistic ideas will spread along with the more obviously correct information provided on how to write computer programs and construct microchips.
In a way, the OpenCourseWare movement is intellectual neoconservatism, a belief that progress and peace best advance when ideas are widely disseminated, debated and shared. My hope is the same as theirs: that as knowledge spreads, human beings will gain in wealth and come to understand their place in the universe as evolved organisms with innate tendencies, ultimately working toward greater peace and prosperity.
Someday, politicians may consider the fact that homo sapiens are primates with a penchant for the often baseless violence against outgroups that tends to break out shortly before a declaration of war. One day, perhaps, neuroscience will lead us to appreciate the extent to which unconscious impulses direct our behavior and conscious thought and give us new tools, perhaps in the form of cybernetic implants, to better attain self-mastery. Just maybe, practitioners of radical Islam and sects of Mormonism will realize that they both are repressing women to increase their Darwinian reproductive success. One thing is certain, though: These liberating ideas will never take hold until universities — great repositories of knowledge that they are — take greater steps to make it globally and domestically available. OpenCourseWare programs are the best way of doing this, and there is a good chance that they will pay off in unimaginable ways.
Matthew Gillum is a first-year graduate student in molecular and cellular physiology. His column appears on alternate Fridays.