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Education reform losing focus

Column/Michael Gojer

In December 1986 President Paul E. Gray '54 wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that MIT was about to embark upon the most intensive review of its undergraduate program in the last 25 years. MIT's task, according to Gray, was to develop "a true educational partnership among the technological, artistic, social, and humanistic disciplines." An "educational synergy," he called it, that could not be addressed in "isolated, piecemeal fashion by faculty members in different disciplines." Yet, if educational reform at MIT continues on its present course, we will have nothing of the kind.

The release this week of reports by the Committee on the First-Year Program and the Science-Engineering Working Group does constitute progress on educational issues -- after five months in which nothing has been heard about them at all. But while these reports may make valid contributions, no one at the Institute is examining the larger questions that educational reform was originally intended to address.

Educational reform efforts so far have concentrated on the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences requirement, the first year program, and now the science core. But the gut of the issue is that, in order to reorient the undergraduate experience at MIT, departmental requirements must change and the teaching format of all courses must be analyzed.

Without changes in departmental requirements, the bulk of a student's program at MIT will remain the same. Schedules for most majors are already tight; no room is left for innovation in the curriculum. The much-touted context courses, for example, will have a hard time finding their way into the mainstream curriculum unless departments are willing to give up some requirements in exchange.

Every one of the writers that contributed to The Tech's education supplement in April 1986 thought that MIT education needed broadening -- not just beyond science and engineering, but within science and engineering. Professor Jack Kerrebrock, associate dean of the School of Engineering, wrote that many subjects cover too much material at the expense of depth of understanding. And MIT students get little exposure to problems with ambiguous answers, wrote Professor Alvin W. Drake '57 of the Departmental of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Freed of some departmental requirements, Drake said, some students could take courses on the social contexts of science and engineering, while others might expand the design experiences within their curriculum.

Similarly, Gray wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1986 that one goal of the educational reform movement at MIT was to expand students' creative and design capabilities. There is evidence, Gray wrote, that the Institute somehow stunts the enthusiasm and creativity of its students during their four year program, and Kerrebrock, in The Tech, questioned the effectiveness of the current lecture/recitation/quiz format in promoting self-study.

But who is studying any of these curriculum issues right now? The extent and focus of departmental requirements and the teaching formats of technical subjects, perhaps the two most important issues in educational reform, are presently not under serious review, albeit for understandable reasons. Changing requirements or teaching formats would stir up serious intra-Institute politics, which educational reformers may not be willing to combat. Until they do, the MIT experience will remain the same.

Current educational review efforts may be missing the forest for the trees. The new HASS requirement went through two years of debate and fine tuning, with the end result that it almost entirely resembles the old requirement. In the meantime, such ambitious plans as the establishment of a College of the New Liberal Arts, proposed by Professor Leo Marx's committee in 1986, have disappeared from the educational reform discussion.

Perhaps the most lasting effect of the reform movement will be a change in MIT's image, even if its curriculum remains the same. When MIT announced that it was revising its humanities requirements, newspapers across the country echoed headlines like "MIT to humanize engineers." The stories, of course, were inaccurate, but the headlines did strike a chord. An admissions office video triumphantly displays MIT as a place for humanistic scientists, and it is clear that MIT seeks a humanistic image.

Yet, within the Institute, confusion abounds over the goals of educational reform. Some perceive the question of curriculum review to be whether MIT courses should be easier or not, and some connect the notion of "humanizing" MIT with lower academic standards. But the dissatisfaction that many students feel with the curriculum may result not from too much to study, but from studying the wrong things in the wrong ways.

Ultimately, the biggest barrier to creating the kind of "educational synergy" that Gray spoke of and reorienting MIT education may be simply a clash of vision. In the past, MIT has defined itself by its stature as a premier technological authority, but broadening MIT's curriculum may require redefining its identity.

One thing is certain: if the Institue truly wants to reorient MIT undergraduate education, it must take on the big issues. Until that happens, we may have to be content with just the headlines.


Michael Gojer, a sophomore in the Departments of Humanities and Physics, is opinion editor of The Tech.