Regulation of the Day 229: Educating Yourself


We live in a golden age of information. These days, anybody who wants to can get a college-level education without ever setting foot on a college campus. An outfit called the Teaching Company doesn’t confer degrees, but it does sell undergraduate-level lecture courses in history, philosophy, literature, the arts, the sciences, and more.

Of course, they charge money. Other outfits don’t. Coursera is a new company that has already attracted nearly 1.7 million customers. You can take online courses for free in almost any subject from medicine to economics to electrical engineering. The lectures are taped at top universities such as Columbia, Vanderbilt, Stanford, and more. You can even take an introductory class in guitar from the Berklee College of Music. Now you don’t need to rack up intimidating levels of debt to learn from the best professors at the world’s best universities.

Minnesota’s Solons would prefer that their state’s residents miss out on this golden age. State law bans unauthorized college courses from the state. Of course, this can’t really be done in the Internet age. Coursera should have pointed out how absurd this law is. Protecting people from free and abundant knowledge is not exactly doing them a service. There’s no force or fraud here, and Coursera does not even confer degrees. Despite all this, Coursera decided to take the appeasement route by posting the following notice:

Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.

Fortunately, not everyone is a regulatory Neville Chamberlain. George Mason University’s Alex Tabarrok, along with his colleague Tyler Cowen, have just started up their own online university, MRUniversity. The name comes from their blog, Marginal Revolution (though I do sometimes pronounce it “Mr. University” in my head). Tabarrok, channeling his inner Churchill, posted this:

Tyler and I wish to be perfectly clear: unlike Coursera, we will not shut down MRU to the residents of Minnesota. We are prepared to defend our rights under the First Amendment to teach the good people of Minnesota all about the Solow Model, water policy in Africa, and the economics of garlic–even if we have to do so from a Minnesota jail!

Should it come to that, it would take mere seconds to decide the court case on the merits. Maybe the Institute for Justice, with its long track record of free speech litigation, can weigh in. With all the bad publicity this story is getting, maybe the mere threat of a lawsuit would cause Minnesota’s resident Savonarolas to back down.

At the risk of making this post illegal to read in Minnesota, I close by encouraging readers interested in free speech to read John Milton’s essay “Areopagitica.” It is one of the most stirring, passionate and eloquent defenses of free expression ever put to paper. The full text is even online for free, courtesy of Dartmouth University.

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