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MIT Needs Direction in the Humanities

Last week, the faculty passed a motion that would commit the Institute to creating a new undergraduate communication requirement. The requirement, which will overhaul the current Phase I and Phase II system, promises to require students to achieve a far higher level of competency in communication before they graduate. But whether that promise will become a reality is another story entirely.

A new communication requirement raises the far larger issue of the role of humanities at MIT. The proposal for the requirement has generated discussion about MIT's educational mission with regard to the humanities. The main argument against more stringent humanities requirements is that MIT is a technical school geared toward providing a top-notch education in science and engineering. Humanities are nice to some extent, but they are not part of the core mission, and too much of them will distract students from what they are at MIT to learn. Others argue that proficiency in humanities, especially communication, is just as important - or at least a crucial complement - to proficiency in a technical field. Both sides have been airing their views on humanities for decades at MIT, and no clear decision from the faculty has ever really emerged on just how seriously MIT should be taking humanities.

If the utterly dismal attendance at last term's writing requirement open forum is any indication, students don't really care about the changes either. The lack of interest may well stem from the fact that the changes won't affect them since the requirement won't go into effect until 2000. But the far more significant issue seems to be that the vast majority of students at MIT - past, present, and likely future - aren't very concerned about writing or the humanities in general at all.

To be sure, MIT has to have some minimum standards for humanities, both to be an accredited university and also to make sure the Institute isn't churning out complete illiterates. But everyone knows that the current writing requirement is little more than a joke. The system tolerates an embarrassingly low level of competence in writing, and a shocking number of students get by unable to do much more than string together coherent sentences. The humanities requirement is not much better. Yes, all students are required to take eight humanities classes, but students can and often do dodge any serious work in the humanities during their four years at MIT.

It's not clear exactly what the new system will require (experiments and pilot programs will be in the works soon), but it seems doubtful that it can do very much in the continuing climate of a faculty sitting on the fence and perennially unwilling students. MIT students will probably never come around. But if the faculty actually wants change, it should make its intentions clear. The new, as-of-yet undefined communication requirement is not a large enough step. Without strong commitment, the new requirement will prove to be simply an add-on - much like many of the current less-than-rigorous writing practica. If the faculty feels strongly that humanities should not play, it should stop plaguing students with useless requirement after requirement.

Either way, the faculty needs some clear direction on the matter. The reality at MIT right now is an in between situation - a half-baked commitment to the humanities that demands little out of students and gets little from them. If MIT doesn't make up its mind about the fundamental role it wants from the humanities, the new requirement will fail like the requirements that have come before it.