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May 20, 2004
Penn State v. Education?
You know those terrible airport bookstores -- the ones with Danielle Steele bestsellers everywhere and not a drop to read? Ever try to find something in such a bookstore to keep you mentally stimulated for the full duration of a five-hour flight?
Now imagine what it would be like if the world was set up like an airport, with every choice -- even your reading materials -- dictated exclusively by the bottom line. Let's say you had to do your Master's thesis using books made available to you solely on the basis of whether or not someone, somewhere, was making a whole lot of money. These books would be your only tools of study, so you'd have to make do. Your thesis: "Trope Density Analysis of Steele's 'Passion Flower': Sexual Metaphors and Learning."
Okay, so that's completely ridiculous. So why do we see Penn State doing to computer-scientists-in-training precisely what airports do to us? In what universe of social values is it acceptable to restrict/inhibit/extinquish self-driven and truly field-tested learning -- the kind that Bill Gates did in his dorm room at Harvard, before he created an industry -- because we're worried about selling more Britney Spears CDs? Especially when we're not even close to sure that Bill is actually hurting Britney's sales?
Larry Lessig likes to talk about what he calls "permission culture." Often, he's referring to permission to use copyrighted materials. But Penn State school officials are forcing students to get a faculty member's permission to set up a server. For a computer researcher, this is tantamount to asking permission to learn. Meanwhile, because Penn State has partnered with Napster 2, everyone gets automatic access to Britney.
Please. What's wrong with this picture? And why can't Penn State see it?
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