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MIT Observes Const. Day on the Internet

By Ray C. He
STAFF REPORTER

True to form, MIT has chosen to celebrate the new, federally-mandated Constitution Day in an online format.

Within a week of tomorrow, all universities receiving federal funds must teach the Constitution, according to an amendment added by Senator Robert C. Byrd to a federal spending bill. MIT is no exception and is featuring Constitution Day on its Web site with links to a resources pertaining to the founding document.

“What we decided to do this year is to basically provide some information through the MIT spotlight and the Web site this weekend,” said Charles H. Stewart III, head of the Department of Political Science, who is coordinating Constitution Day activities. “In the future, we’ll try to build on what we’re doing this year, which is to highlight a theme that’s related to the Constitution at MIT.”

Stewart, however, expressed mixed feelings about the event. “Nobody likes to be mandated to do anything,” he said.

”It’s a very naive piece of legislation and very poorly thought out in a lot of directions, which encourages universities to treat it cynically,” Stewart said. “It’s also a bad piece of policy given what they’re trying to achieve — if anything I think there’s more irony to it than anything else.”

The mandate is not completely inappropriate, however, he said. “MIT does receive federal grants, it’s not unreasonable for the federal government to expect universities to do certain things,” Stewart said. “We want to do something that’s serious; maybe we’ll reach out and teach something new.”

Actions required by law unclear

“The law doesn’t require any real activities,” Stewart said. “It turns out that an activity could be posting up a Web site or making available material — you don’t have to have a talk or invite a real audience.”

The loose requirements may also contribute to cynicism, he said. “You could argue that MIT or virtually any university is engaged in educational opportunities that teach the constitution,” he said, just by having materials relating to the Constitution available in their libraries.

The legislation may be an attempt to fix a perceived lack of education. “It just assumes that because we’re not having students standing around reciting the preamble, we’re forgetting the U.S. constitution,” Stewart said. “People complain that Introduction to Astronomy doesn’t teach people the constellations. It’s really a simplistic view on education.”

Lecture also teaches Constitution

In addition to the Web resources that will be provided, World Wide Web Consortium Technology and Society Domain Leader Daniel J. Weitzner presented a guest lecture on the Internet and the Constitution, Stewart said.

“There should be a link to the lecture given by Weitzner on the spotlight,” he said. The lecture will appear in a streaming video format and was taped yesterday from “Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier,” a class taught by Harold Abelson PhD ’73, professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.