Not So OpenCourseWare

Web page for Pulitzer-winning historian's course is temporarily halted at MIT amid Chinese students' complaints of cultural insensitivity.
May 1, 2006

One of the many classes that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shares with the world through its pioneering OpenCourseWare initiative is "Visualizing Cultures," an esteemed, interdisciplinary look at "how images have been used to shape the identity of peoples and cultures," notably Japan. Among the hundreds of images displayed on the site are wood-block prints that Japan used as propaganda during the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese war, which captions and other text on the site criticize for their "derision of the Chinese" and the "shocking" contempt they reveal for Japan's Asian counterpart.

The three-year-old course and its Web site, creations of John W. Dower, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, and Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics and of foreign languages and literature, do just what good scholarship is supposed to do: They present, explain and analyze sometimes difficult and even occasionally offensive material.

But while MIT's OpenCourseWare project has been lauded for sharing course materials freely in an effort to inform and educate the world, a controversy that exploded at the university last week suggests that the institution has a ways to go in educating and informing some of its own students about the purpose of history, scholarship and higher education.

Last Sunday, April 20, MIT featured the "Visualizing Cultures" course on the home page of its central Web site, and seemingly as a result of that increased attention, some of the wood-block images -- particularly one entitled “Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers,” which depicted just such a scene -- circulated on the Internet, without the captions and other material explaining their meaning (and criticizing them as dangerous Japanese propaganda) that accompanied them on the MIT site.

Within a day, screeds criticizing the prints, Dower and Miyagawa, and MIT appeared on Chinese Web sites, and the university and the professors received e-mail messages (from people outside the institution, reportedly including some MIT alumni) that accused them of cultural insensitivity, called them racist, and urged their firing.

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a group made up mostly of MIT graduate students from mainland China, wrote a letter to President Susan Hockfield in which they reportedly asked the university post warnings that the images were graphic and racist. "We do understand the historical significance of these woodprints and respect the authors' academic freedom to pursue this study," they wrote. "However, we are appalled at the lack of accessible explanations and the proper historical context that ought to accompany these images."

As the complaints mounted, the professors and MIT officials met with the Chinese students, who described the images as "hurtful," said Pamela Dumas Serfes, interim director of MIT's news service. On Thursday, she said, Dower and Miyagawa decided that the "best thing to do to bridge this misunderstanding was to take down that unit" from the MIT site, while the scholars worked with the Chinese students to figure out "how we fix this." Among the options, she said, were including captions in several languages, posting a disclaimer about the graphic nature of some of the images, and placing on the site an 88-page study guide that the scholars have been preparing.

"They felt it was responsible to take it down temporarily so they could hear these concerns," Dumas Serfes said.

Dower and Miyagawa were not available for comment. But in a statement posted on MIT's Web site (to which all links to the original course site now point), the two scholars expressed their "deep regret over the emotional distress caused by some of the imagery" and said they were "genuinely sorry that the Web site has caused pain within the Chinese community. This was completely contrary to our intention. Our purpose is to look at history in the broadest possible manner and to try to learn from this."

Of the images on the site, they said: "These historical images do not reflect our beliefs. To the contrary, our intent was to illuminate aspects of the human experience -- including imperialism, racism, violence and war -- that we must confront squarely if we are to create a better world."

"Many people who have seen the Web site, however, have indicated that the purpose of the project is not sufficiently clear to counteract the negative messages contained in the historical images portrayed on the site," they added. "We have temporarily taken down this Web site while these community concerns are being addressed."

In further explaining the reasons behind the site being taken down, MIT's chancellor, Philip L. Clay, criticized those who attacked the scholars, saying the reaction "has been inappropriate and antithetical to the mission and spirit of MIT and of any university." "This is not only unfair to our colleagues, but contrary to the very essence of the university as a place for the free exploration of ideas and the embrace of intellectual and cultural diversity," he said. "In the spirit of collaboration, MIT encourages an open and constructive dialogue."

Others at MIT and elsewhere had harsh words for the Chinese students who complained, and some said they were perplexed that MIT had responded by taking the site down.

George Wei, professor and chairman of the history department at Susquehanna University and president of Chinese Historians in the United States, an affiliate of the American Historical Association, said he was particularly distressed by the lack of understanding that the Chinese graduate students displayed about the role of history and the value of scholarly exploration.

"I don’t understand what’s going on in the minds of these Chinese students -- they're looking at things in a simplistic way," said Wei. "In general, students from China, especially those who've been trained in technology and science, lack proper training in humanities and social sciences; and they don't how to look at historical events, to see things in context."

In his own courses, Wei said, he often posts images "without saying anything," and asks students "to think about what's behind the images without trying to influence them by my explanation first." Images like the ones to which the students objected show that "the Japanese did some terrible things to the Chinese in the past," he said. "We wish to remember this, not forget it."

In an open letter to the Chinese students, Peter C. Perdue, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations and a professor of history at MIT, encourged them to take a broader view of their education and of the importance of scholarly inquiry.

"The American university is based on the fundamental principle of academic freedom," Perdue wrote. "Scholars must be allowed to engage in whatever research activities they find most challenging in their professional fields. Their work is subject to the judgment of their peers in their discipline, and they must respond to careful, reasoned criticism from professional colleagues. Scholars also engage in open dialogue with students and the general public in order to promote public awareness of their research. But ultimately, no one can tell them what to study, or demand that their work be suppressed."

As future leaders of China, Perdue said, MIT's Chinese students had an obligation to study not just technology but "the crucial questions of social and historical change that will determine China’s future. He added: "Please open your minds to critical awareness of these most difficult questions in a spirit of reasoned, open intellectual discourse, not one of narrow, self-centered indignation."

It is not clear when MIT will again make the Visualizing Cultures available, and with what changes to it.


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