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Beyond ideas, colloquium promotes community

Column by Jonathan Richmond

The afternoon had begun with a large crowd listening lethargically to a succession of formal speeches in Kresge Auditorium. But now, with an illuminated green frog casting a watchful eye over the proceedings and a massive, but friendly, stuffed dog standing guard, the setting at the independent living group pika was homey and intimate and the discussion -- six hours into MIT's colloquium on "Science Smarts: The Scandal of Scientific Illiteracy" -- was both animated and serious.

"Science Smarts" -- held last Monday -- was the latest in a series of campus-wide colloquia at MIT and, despite its slow start, was a huge success not only in promoting discussion of topics of fundamental importance, but in bringing people from all over MIT together and fostering something often said to be lacking at the Institute -- a sense of community. The colloquium idea must be applauded, continued, and further developed.

The day took participants on a trip through a funnel: everyone starting apart and traveling slowly at the top, but coming together and accelerating in pace as the evening drew on. The presentations in Kresge were generally dry and uninspiring. President Paul E. Gray '54, at least, tried to be witty, but F. James Rutherford of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was platitudinous. Sandra Spooner, assistant superintendent of schools for the City of Cambridge, had some significant points but, like Rutherford, failed to crystallize what she had to say.

Gray reeled off a series of statistics to demonstrate the poor performance of Americans in science, and said that "scientific illiteracy threatens our ability to compete effectively." He never said what he meant by "scientific illiteracy," however, nor established why the inadequacy of scientific education should attract our attention any more than what he admitted to be the dismal state of education as a whole.

Rutherford, like Gray, saw the inability to "produce people who are literate in science, technology and math" as a "scandal." He made the important point that the humanities and ethics must be studied in tandem with science but talked only in vague terms, offering no ideas as to how this might be appropriately done. His patronizing manner was unfortunate as well.

Spooner was surely right when she said that science taught from the textbook is unlikely to inspire students -- more creative, exciting approaches are needed. But this begs the question of why learning in general is often not only unexciting but given low priority, or why so many American students are illiterate in their own language and uneducated in matters as basic as the use of logic to deal rationally with whatever matter comes to hand. It also begs the question of what might be done about it.

Afterwards, an audience member, Rob Fellows G, expressed his disappointment with the presentations: "It was just deadly dull, and it didn't get near the point: why is it that kids aren't interested in learning?"

It was left to the audience to ignite the debate, and with question time -- which was much too short compared to the time allotted the speakers -- the colloquium took off. Long lines of students formed at the microphones set up in the aisles to passionately challenge the speakers to confront the most difficult problems of education. One student took the discussion into the realm of politics by contrasting the highly-structured nature of his East European education to the American system which exists in a "free country [where] everyone has the right to be stupid." Another addressed the low societal and self-images of people interested in science.

Most poignantly, one student told of her mother's difficulties of teaching in a Harlem school where she lacked proper funding or support: "My mother spent a year without a door on her classroom," she said. Perhaps here was the real problem: as a society we lack a commitment to education; we don't care.

The colloquium reconvened at a plethora of living groups on and off the MIT campus, and it was here that the most productive business was done. Dinner discussions at pika -- a cross between an out-of-control experiment in high-energy physics and the kind of womb-like kindergarten we'd all secretly like to regress to -- were wide-ranging. My table had people from Australia, Denmark and Britain as well as from the United States and, fueled by copious quantities of dynamite pikan-produced chili and fresh-baked cornbread (the pikans were delightful and hospitable hosts), compared the principles, pros, and cons of educational systems around the world.

Stomachs satiated, colloquium participants sprawled themselves comfortably on a series of easy chairs, in a cushion-filled antique bathtub pikans rescued from the dump a year ago, or on the floor of the "Murph" -- pika's name for its living room -- and engaged in intense and committed discussion for two hours. How did schools shape children? What was education like in Japan and was it really any better? What damage was TV doing to children's education in the United States, and why wasn't it a problem in Japan? What could we do about a public not educated to vote on topics such as Seabrook nuclear power plant?

From the general and the global, discussion came back home to MIT to ask why few MIT graduates became legislators. How could people from MIT contribute to the democratic process? Was it just the responsibility of the general public to become better acquainted with science, or should those trained in science show more humility in explaining their knowledge to the public in understandable terms?

Finally, the issue of scientific literacy at MIT itself was addressed. Did the high-pressured teaching of techniques make for effective scientists? While one of the guests preferred such an emphasis, saying the most important ability for a bridge-builder was to know how to build a bridge correctly, others disagreed, maintaining that an ability to think reflectively -- which MIT teaches less well than the analytic thinking skills at which MIT graduates are pre-eminent -- should be given more attention than it currently has in the MIT curriculum. There were many majors who were "fine in problem sets at getting A's, but can't think about what it means at a basic level."

Elizabeth Morgan '92 said that she'd "never seen the rigors of doing problem sets as aiding comprehension," and contrasted her education at MIT with that of her sister, who was studying philosophy, Ancient Greek, math and music at St. John's College where she was "learning to critically analyze anything she deals with... I'm having information poured down my throat [but] she can deal with new facts much more readily and critically than we can."

Although perhaps none of us realized it at the time, however, the living group discussions were in themselves a contribution to the art of reflective thinking, a free, thoughtful, and sometimes quite deep interchange between professors, administrators and students. The maturity and involvement shown by contributions from the pika undergraduates certainly belied the myth of MIT students as narrow nerds. Reports from other living groups indicated that discussions there had been successful, too.

Perhaps most significantly, the evening provided for a diverse group of people who might otherwise never have met to come together and establish a community of interest in a rare atmosphere of equality and friendship. Even if the principal outcome is just to provide everyone more faces to say hello to in the Infinite Corridor, the colloquium had played a role in making MIT a more human place. Even the green frog seemed to be smiling.

who

Jonathan Richmond G, a graduate student in the Department of Civil Engineering, who has developed and taught a course that includes the application of moral philosophy to questions of transportation policy, is a contributing editor for The Tech.

SANDWICH QUOTES. Don't use too many, of course. And read the ones you choose for compatibility, of course. Blah, Blah. --mg

The colloquium was a success not only in promoting discussion of topics of fundamental importance, but in bringing people from all over MIT together and fostering a sense of community.

One student contrasted the highly-structured nature of his East European education with the American system which exists in a "free country [where] everyone has the right to be stupid."

Is it the responsibility of the general public to become better acquainted with science, or should those trained in science show more humility in explaining their knowledge to the public in understandable terms?

Perhaps here is the real problem: as a society we lack a commitment to education; we don't care.

Even the green frog seemed to be smiling.