The Chronicle Review

In the Post-Truth Era, Colleges Must Share Their Knowledge

April 02, 2017

Keith Negley for The Chronicle Review
The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently announced that it was adopting a new policy of open access to images of items in its collection. "Increasing access to the museum’s collection and scholarship serves the interests and needs of our 21st-century audiences by offering new resources for creativity, knowledge, and ideas," said Thomas P. Campbell, the Met’s director. The chief digital officer, Loic Tallon, described those key audiences as not only the 6.7 million people who physically visited the Met last year, but also the billions of people worldwide connected to the internet.

Sharing universities’ knowledge openly and freely — knowledge produced or nurtured at; paid for, licensed, or owned by; or affiliated with the university — could also be a triumph for higher education. This has always been the case, but effecting it now is a moral imperative in this new post-truth, failed-fourth-estate, post-literate age of Trump.

Why? First of all, we are all in the attention business, and we have to play to win. Netflix tells its shareholders that it is not in the movie business or in the television business, but in the attention business, and that its competition is not CBS or NBC Universal or YouTube, but everything: every video game, online lecture, book, football game, advertisement, poem, sermon, or daydream. We who produce knowledge are also in the attention business — competing against everything else for time and place on the screens that we carry around and shuttle to and from every few minutes. To direct attention to the real knowledge that we produce, publishing our material online for free use and reuse is the first step.

Second, we’re descending into a post-truth age — and we have to pull out of free fall. Facts and truth are frequently no longer privileged; information is being weaponized. Our screens in particular are being overrun by people who don’t seem to care about objective standards or factual accuracy. Trust in media has plunged. President Barack Obama described this new media ecosystem as one in which "everything is true and nothing is true."

"An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist," Obama warned, "looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal — that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation."

Publishing our material online for free use and reuse is the first step.
It is in keeping with our mission as educators that we have to fight back — and infuse this new ecosystem with all the antibodies we have in hand, especially facts and knowledge.

Third, we are allegedly entering the post-literate age — we have to publish, alongside our texts, our images, video, and sound. The poster child for Adderall is now the leader of the free world, and television talk shows present whole programs on the topic of our new president’s being illiterate. Is society following in his path?

This isn’t a brand-new diagnosis. The historian Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge University Press, 1979) recounts her excitement about discovering a book by a "mischievous" professor of English, Marshall McLuhan, declaring the age of Gutenberg to have come to at an end. And — who knows? — maybe reading is overvalued. For most of human history, we have communicated through other means. Reading, only 6,000 years old, according to Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Routledge, 1982), may be an aberration — a blip — in the development of the human race.

In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (Norton, 2004), Sam Harris reminds us that many of the greatest global fights of previous millennia, as well as some of the evils of the present one, arise from people and religions focused on texts — literal readings of texts — which represent, as he puts it, "ignorance at its most rococo." "Most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book," Harris writes, and many of those people, especially across the Abrahamic faiths, are animated one way or another by literal readings that allow them to embrace ostensibly God-given directions to be intolerant — often violently so. Harris has us imagine a future in which millions of our descendants are threatening, even murdering, one another over their rival interpretations of films like Star Wars.

We have to recognize that the images, video, and sounds that we as educators produce need to be shared — that our MOOCs, digitized artifacts, primary documents, and sound archives need to find their proper place on people’s screens. The Marquis de Condorcet, an occasional pen pal of Thomas Jefferson’s, declared that universal education together with the printing press would inevitably result in an ideal society, in which the sun would shine "on an earth of none but freemen, with no masters save reason, for tyrants and slaves, priests and their hypocritical tools, will all have disappeared." Not quite — but maybe with the help of YouTube. Measured any way you like — by volume of digital traffic, time spent with media, proliferation of screens worldwide — video is the main thing people do on the internet. The online, video-rich courses we produce in the academy now need to be shared openly as well.

How best to do this?

First, we need to recognize that there is an apparatus for acceptance of or resistance to free licensing, both explicit and implicit, in universities’ definitions of themselves and documentation of their practices. These incentives or disincentives are woven into all of our university compacts, some of which sound vague and philosophical but all of which have intense practical, and often immediate, effects.

We would do well to examine every such document — a university’s mission statement, published copyright policies, the occasional presidential or provostial or task-force or working-group pronouncement, the contracts signed with companies and enterprises like edX and Coursera, the contracts signed with faculty members regarding the creation and publication of materials, the appearance releases that professors and others sign when they are filmed, the deeds of gift that the library prepares for donors. The language in all of those things helps to form the power apparatus, and each of those pieces contains, explicitly or implicitly, a testimonial about the power we have as educators to share what we know. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s mission statement, for example, is explicit about sharing:

At its founding in 1861, MIT was an educational innovation, a community of hands-on problem solvers in love with fundamental science and eager to make the world a better place. Today, that spirit still guides how we educate students on campus and how we shape new digital learning technologies to make MIT teaching accessible to millions of learners around the world.

In this video age, we need to start sharing, first and foremost, our newest and most elaborate knowledge products, video-rich online courses, and then dive into other media. That may require adjusting existing agreements and redesigning future ones. For example, MIT OpenCourseWare, a "a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content," used an agreement with its faculty members in about 3,000 instances — live course sites as well as supplemental resource sites — of publishing open courseware. That agreement, useful then, is not considered a free license today, because the permissions that faculty members gave the institute include the restrictions italicized below:

I understand and acknowledge that through the MIT OCW program the Materials will be available to third parties who will be granted a perpetual, royalty free, nonexclusive license to use, reproduce, distribute, translate and modify the Materials for educational, non-commercial, and non-monetary gain.

Universities like MIT may consider revising such agreements one by one, so that the peerless materials in open courseware can flood the commons with knowledge. Overhauling these documents — our whole contractual apparatus — is essential. In The Chronicle, Pamela Samuelson wisely calls for academe to support people to do this work as part of their jobs.

We need an economic analysis of the scholarly-publishing ecosystem, mapping the way money moves around in this strange scrip universe of ours, to understand just what is being given up, or sold short, when free licenses are not chosen. If the philosophy behind university policies needs attention, so too does the business dimension behind every decision to keep educational material away from someone who could learn from it. The classic Jefferson quotation still holds: "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me."

How much more expensive is it, when you are producing new content, to produce a free resource than one that’s not free? In the MOOC world, the answer is pretty clear — not much if at all. You don’t need more cameras to make a free online resource. You don’t need more camera operators or more editors. If anything, cost areas to look at include legal, accounting, rights acquisition, and insurance — but any and all differentials are likely to be minor. For new productions and publications especially, additional economic costs are likely to be marginal. But the benefits for the university, for education, and for society could be enormous.

Contributing to Wikipedia is among the greatest things that people committed to sharing knowledge can do today.
Like the Met, we should embrace Wikipedia. Publishing to Wikipedia is among the greatest things that people committed to sharing knowledge can do today — not just for the benefits that Wikipedia bestows on an institution from search results, and not just because of the benefit of working with Wikipedians active in editing around the world to help shape and sharpen what we publish, but also because this is the great new phase of the Enlightenment project. Over time, every funded production, every funded publication, should find its way into the commons.

Scholarly publishing involves a broad spectrum of rights and freedoms, from total copyright lockdown, to guerrilla movements such as Sci-Hub and LibGen, to common piracy. In the middle are our crucial partners: JSTOR, Artstor, HathiTrust, and a variety of open-access publishers. But the incentives to open access are increasing. Creative Commons licenses now grace more than a billion works. Wikipedia in English has 30 million users, and thousands of new articles are generated every month. Furthermore, the funders of work that matters to us — many of the most important and most influential supporters, public and private — are recognizing the importance of supporting access to the knowledge that is being produced and published with their resources. As of January, for example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation insists that all of its grantees’ work be published under a liberal Creative Commons license.

The struggle for open access is part of a much larger struggle. In Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Reinhold Niebuhr poked at Condorcet to insist that you can educate people as much as you want, but there has to be equality in the land in order for society and the groups within it not to be evil. It’s part of the power struggle. Proposals from the White House Office of Management and Budget to eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are designed to squelch the knowledge that is disseminated with the support of these lifeblood organizations. The struggle for open access — for free licenses — is about who controls our information.

One hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks were acutely aware of the need for a big fix on all levels. When the Russian Revolution started in earnest, Trotsky organized the seizure of all the key nodes of information — the telegraph, the post offices, the railroad stations. He said, "You may not be interested in the dialectic. But the dialectic is interested in you."

And so I would say: You might not be interested in free licenses and open educational resources — yet. But free licenses, and knowledge as a body, are interested in you.

Peter B. Kaufman is president and executive producer of Intelligent Television and a former associate director of Columbia University’s Center for Teaching and Learning. He is the author of The Columbia Manual of Video Style, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.