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Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 1999 /6 Kislev, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway -- WE RIDE THE INFORMATION HIGHWAY into the New Millennium focused on data and technology.

That's what the Microsoft case is all about: Who controls the process? The argument is more about commerce and "facts'' than ethics and ideas, but ethics and ideas, especially entrepreneurial innovation, are at its root.

The big question: Is the government overriding property rights or is Microsoft violating antitrust law?

If I were a high school teacher, I would require students to debate both sides because the debate touches on crucial issues that will affect their lives as they grow up in a free enterprise system.

In some ways Bill Gates is Horatio Alger. He didn't have to climb out of poverty, but he moved steadily in the direction beyond the wildest American dreams of most men. To his defenders, Bill Gates is the archetypal capitalist who uses his brain to innovate, take risks, and make money for himself, associates, stockholders and lots of others who benefit from their spending, including not least the United States Treasury.

Others see him as the embodiment of the worst of a ruthless ethic that works against the consumer because "monopoly'' tactics produce higher prices. Students should debate the Microsoft case in the context of Thomas Jefferson's thoughts about education.

The first object of primary education, Jefferson wrote in his report for the University of Virginia, is "to give every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business.'' Bill Gates certainly had done that. But Jefferson adds higher objectives, even more important: "To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the function confided to him by either...'' Jefferson also talks about order and justice, trust and good conduct. These questions must be considered in relation to zealous government lawyers and zealous entrepreneurs.

Jefferson's point is echoed in a wonderful essay by Diana Schaub, an associate professor of political science at Loyola College in Baltimore, about the moral issues facing Generation X. Education, she writes in the Public Interest magazine, lacks an appeal to citizenship. Education must provide the tools for earning money -- a person's personal business -- but it must also encompass the larger issues of rights, interests and duties. Future workers are also future citizens.

Jefferson believed information must be infused with ethical understanding within the political context. He wanted men and women to be educated to think for themselves and for what is in the best interest of a democratic country.

A work ethic, the process of commerce, which has been embedded in the American character since the founding of our nation, must be tempered with the knowledge that leads to wisdom. Walt Whitman, who comes closest to being our national poet, would have called this "the religious element,'' which he found at the core of our democracy.

A growing number of social critics are deeply concerned about our lack of a national "narrative,'' a story that gives illumination to "we the people.'' We no longer use tradition to guide us. We denigrate custom to favor what's new. We focus on data over knowledge.

Neil Postman, a trenchant observer of cultural mediocrity in his new book, "Building a Bridge to the 18th Century,'' is disturbed by the narrowness of the information highway and all that digital technology has produced -- including high-definition TV, virtual reality, e-mail, the Internet, cellular phones.

We can see, hear, visit and talk over great expanses of space and time. We can do it more economically and with greater speed than ever before in human history. But we often don't really have anything to say. Do we give ourselves the leisure time to ruminate or do we simply react? Information is not knowledge. We're more concerned with how much memory our machines have than what we remember ourselves.

Americans are by nature an optimistic lot. Whether we side with Bill Gates or not, we appreciate his technology. As a result, we can all be better informed. What we do with the information takes us back to Jefferson, and how he wanted Americans to use their education.


11/11/99:Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate