Good Reads: Christian Middle East exodus, online ed, drone strikes, and Japan's prisons

The round-up of Good Reads for this week includes a look at the plight of Christians in the Middle East, how online classes are faring, a visual timeline of US drone attacks, and why Japan's crime rate is so low.

Khalid Mohammed/AP/File
Iraqi Christians pray during a mass in Baghdad.

The post-Arab Spring climate in the Middle East has accelerated a “Christian exodus” from the region, says Hassan Mneimneh of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, in a piece on He sees “[t]he fate of the Christians in the Middle East” as “inseparable from the region’s transformation into a viable, prosperous, and progressive home for all of its inhabitants.”

Christian populations in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories have shrunk dramatically in recent years. In Syria, Christians face increased Islamic radicalization. In Egypt, they are being denied basic civic rights and protection. Even in Jordan, the Christian community eyes political and demographic developments within the kingdom warily.

In response, Christians have emigrated from the region en masse. Some have sought alliances with other minorities, including the Alawites of the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah (Shiites) in Lebanon. And Mr. Mneimneh says efforts by Christian leaders in Lebanon to gain disproportionate political representation set a “dangerous precedent.”

Is online ed here to stay?

Massive open online courses, also known as MOOCs, have drawn plenty of attention – and hundreds of thousands of students. Several elite colleges have joined with companies such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity to offer free online courses, though not for credit, that can have tens of thousands of students at once.

Proponents laud the popular courses for “democratizing” access to knowledge and for their potential to educate future innovators. Critics who worry about “the McDonaldization of higher education” deplore a lack of accountability for plagiarism and cheating, and question the quality of the student experience.

What do the professors who create and teach the MOOCs say? According to a survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education, 79 percent believe the courses “are worth the hype.” Steve Kolowich says the findings signal “a change of heart that could indicate a bigger shake-up in the higher-education landscape.”

Nearly half of the professors said their MOOCs were as academically rigorous as their in-class versions. The majority (72 percent) felt successful students should be given credit at their institution. And an overwhelming majority believe free online courses will drive down the cost of college generally.

But a majority (55 percent) also said that MOOCs diverted time away from research and traditional teaching. And the average pass rate for their online courses (with a median enrollment of 30,000) was just 7.5 percent.

Professors cited a variety of motivations for teaching MOOCs, both altruistic and professional. But most saw online education as the inevitable wave of the future.

Visualizing drone strikes

According to a recent Gallup poll, 65 percent of Americans support US drone attacks on terrorists abroad, but less than half are closely following news on drones. That’s an awareness gap California media company Pitch Interactive seeks to bridge with its newly launched interactive Web visualization of the US drone strikes that have taken place in Pakistan since 2004. The animated visualization ( charts the chronology, frequency and volume, and victims of the attacks.

Using data primarily from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, New America Foundation, and “Living Under Drones” (a Stanford/NYU report), Pitch groups victims into four categories: children, civilians, other (“a very grey area”), and high-profile targets, which represent just 1.5 percent of total victims. Civilians and children account for 22.8 percent.

Slate blogger Emma Roller says the data should be taken with a grain of salt. For perspective, she also notes that the Iraq Body Count project estimates 60 percent of those killed in Iraq since 2003 were civilians. And though Pitch says its aim is not “to speak for or against [drones], but to inform,” Ms. Roller feels the group presents data “in a way that fits nicely into the ‘against’ column.”

Why Japan has a low crime rate

In the French daily Le Monde, Phillipe Pons takes a critical look at the harsh conditions of Japanese prisons and high rates of capital punishment. The piece can be read in English (translated by Carolina Saracho) at Worldcrunch, a site that translates and edits content from top foreign-language outlets.

The article describes draconian prisons and a criminal-justice system in which those arrested can be held in detention for 23 days without being charged or having access to a lawyer and in which “[a]lmost all convictions are obtained thanks to ‘confessions.’ ” During Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2006-07 term in office, 10 people were hanged in less than a year.

But Japan also has the lowest incarceration and recidivism rates of developed nations. The government says Japan’s relatively low crime rate justifies the tough penalties. And polls show that the majority of Japanese support the death penalty. But criminologists debate “the deterrent effect” and note other factors at play, such as strict gun laws. On balance, Mr. Pons worries that “Public order comes at a high price in Japan – the price of prisoner rights and the presumption of innocence.”

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