Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Burn the Man's Books!

According MIT's Title IX Office, no-longer-Professor-Emeritus Walter Lewin acted in violation of the Institute's sexual harassment and misconduct policy while teaching an online MIT course open to the public. The Institute announced on Tuesday that it has stripped Lewin of Professor-Emeritus status, and will be removing videos of his physics lectures -- which have been called "legendary" -- from MIT OpenCourseWare and MITx.

I accept without question the reports that the charges were extremely serious and that "this wasn't a borderline case", and I agree with my current CS(@MIT) professor Scott Aaronson, as he writes in a recent blog post:

  • [S]exual harassment must never be tolerated, neither here nor anywhere else. But I also feel that, if a public figure is going to be publicly brought down like this (yes, even by a private university), then the detailed findings of the investigation should likewise be made public, regardless of how embarrassing they are.

  • More importantly, I wish to register that I disagree in the strongest possible terms with MIT’s decision to remove Prof. Lewin’s lectures from OpenCourseWare—thereby forcing the tens of thousands of students around the world who were watching these legendary lectures to hunt for ripped copies on BitTorrent.


Again, I believe that MIT President Rafael Reif speaks correctly when he says, in the Institute's initial press release:

Students place tremendous trust in their teachers. Deserving that trust is among our most fundamental obligations. We must take the greatest care that everyone who comes to us for knowledge and instruction, whether in classrooms or online, can count on MIT as a safe and respectful place to learn.

To this end, the strength and force of the Insitute's denouncement of Lewin belies a genuine commitment to deserving the trust of all of their students (not only those protected under federal statute). It cannot be easy for a high-profile institution to cut ties from one of its most famous faculty in such a public manner, and MIT should be commended for having the strength and moral vision to do so.

But it is overbroad, shortsighted, and selfish to remove seven courses' worth of MIT-owned, Creative Commons-licensed video content as a denouncement of its creator. It goes beyond "the interest of preventing any further inappropriate behavior", and in Aaronson's words:

...sends the wrong message about MIT’s values, and is a gift to those who like to compare modern American college campuses to the Soviet Union.

I have, in recent times, grown frustrated with my own University's moral courage, especially when it comes to taking the hard line with its own faculty, and admired the seeming propensity of the technical school down the road to do the right thing when the right thing is hard, or at least having the courage to ask itself hard questions. But this incident leaves me looking for another model for what I wish my school would act more like.

I understand that MIT is in a tough place here -- they have to find a way to communicate, beyond any ambiguity, their unqualified opposition to any sexual harassment in the MIT community and the equality of student, faculty, and personae publicae alike before the court of moral law. But in attempting to erase the man's work as an educator stands in opposition to the Institute's role as a public-educational institution. The drive to be seen doing things right seems to have squashed the Institute's willingness to acknowledge that sometimes, things done right have more than one social dimension.


In the words of former Harvard president Charles Eliot which are astonishingly relevant a century after they were spoken:

The actual problem to be solved is not what to teach, but how to teach. The revolutions accomplished in other fields of labor have a lesson for teachers. ... When millions are to be fed where formerly there were but scores, the fish-line must be replaced by seines, ... the human shoulders by steam elevators, and the wooden-axled ox-cart ... by the smooth-running freight train.

In education there is a great hungry multitude to be fed. ... To think this impossible is to despair of mankind; for unless a general acquaintance with many branches of knowledge -- good as far as it goes -- be attainable by great numbers of [people], there can be no such thing as an intelligent public opinion; and in the modern world the intelligence of public opinion is the one condition of social progress.

The fishline must be replaced by seines; the lecture hall must be replaced supplemented by the video lecture and flipped classroom; there is a great hungry multitude across the globe which clamors today for instruction in whatever form they can find it, and it is their loss that MIT sacrifices in the name of making clear its moral superiority.

In the same commencement address, Eliot said

Two kinds of men make good teachers, -- young men and men who never grow old,

and in the latter respect, Lewin on the lecture stage was one of the world's greatest. If you haven't seen his final lecture, "For the Love of Physics", I highly recommend it. His lectures are an unmatched resource for students and aspiring students of physics

His greatness excuses nothing. But we, as citizens of a rich, open, and evolving information society, must be capable of acknowledging that the sources of our knowledge are not uncomplicated. Should we erase and ignore the biological advances of noted racist and misogynist James Watson? Do the operas and philosophical texts of Nazi supporters Richard Wagner and Martin Heidegger deserve study, or abandonment? Do we step away from the music of domestic abuser John Lennon? What should we make of a government founded by men who, while not uniformly abusive of their slaves, certainly were outspokenly classist, casually misogynist, and openly decried -- in the foundational document of the United States -- "the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions"?

Or do we send the message that, as students and scholars, we find truth, enlightnenment, and learning not just in the writs of a few impeccable saints, but in flawed human beings -- that we can understand and judge such flaws for ourselves, not in a false dichotomy of 'good' / 'evil', but with a critical eye to what they tell us about what we should believe fully, skeptically, critically, or not at all?

Indiscriminant book-burning is a crude intellectual act.

footnote: Please do not construe this post as an apologia for Lewin's actions. Valid claims of sexual harassment are absolutely grounds for an academic scholar to be stripped of all honorific titles by any institution positioned to do so, and I once again commend MIT for making the hard moral choice in cutting ties with an iconic once-pillar of their physics community.