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Reform will be difficult but possible

Column/Alan Szarawarski

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Before every semester I look back on the past term and vow to break my bad habits. Well-rested and optimistic, I resolve that in the coming term I will stop procrastinating, finish every assignment, and stay alert in class. My actual performance, though, never quite equals my expectations.

If we are not careful, undergraduate curriculum reform at MIT will follow a similar pattern by generating visionary goals that are not achieved. Political scientists have identified a number of factors that hinder the design and implementation of new policies. Three of these are particularly relevant to MIT's struggle to reform undergraduate education.

One factor complicating policy-making is the conflict between different goals. Students at MIT receive superior technical educations, qualifying them for top graduate schools and exciting employment. Maintaining this technical excellence is universally cited as a goal of curriculum reform.

But technical excellence is not enough. Technical professionals need more than the quantitative problem-solving skills that form the bulk of an MIT education. Broadening the educations of MIT students is the second goal of curriculum reform.

Given MIT's legendary work load, devoting more time to non-technical fields conflicts with the practice of packing as much technical training as possible into four years. Broadening the curriculum while maintaining technical superiority is possible, but it will require making trade-offs.

Faced with trade-offs, policy makers tend to maintain the status quo. Without strong commitment to reform, beneficial changes will not be made.

The second factor that complicates curriculum reform is decentralization. Four committees and many more administrators are currently studying MIT education. The Institute will have to accommodate students in over twenty different majors. Integrating everyone's views into a coherent policy will be a long and difficult process.

Decentralization will also complicate the implementation of policies once they have been molded. The Institute may adopt new policies, but change will not happen unless everyone supports the new ideas and puts them into practice. The effects of any new policies will be determined by the hundreds of professors who teach undergraduates. Because the success of curriculum reform depends on its having widespread support, the input of the entire community must be sought in the coming months.

The third factor complicating curriculum reform is the difficulty of changing attitudes. Policies aimed at causing specific actions have an easier job than those that seek to change attitudes. The federal government was much more successful in forcing municipal clerks to register black voters than it has been in eliminating prejudice.

The effect of Institute culture on the experience of undergraduates cannot be overestimated. Although incoming students share an interest in science and technology, individual students have varied interests. Many freshmen change their majors almost weekly.

Freshmen are immersed in an environment where humanities courses are treated lightly. They begin to view humanities as "breaks from real classes," and they learn from the upperclassmen how most easily to satisfy their humanities requirements. Faced with three problem sets a week, many students never discover the avenues for different modes of thought and fresh insights that come from studying the liberal arts.

Changing courses and degree requirements will eventually change Institute culture. But campus attitudes will dampen the immediate impact of curriculum reform.

The lesson of political science is not that changing undergraduate education at MIT is impossible, only that it will be difficult. MIT has the potential to develop a new generation of technical professionals whose capabilites transcend engineering innovation and scientific discovery. But it will require time, the cooperation of the entire community and willingness to take risks.