MIT Needs a More Serious Attitude on the HumanitiesColumn by Erik S. Balsley
As the annual Institute Committee dinner concluded on Tuesday night, I found myself slightly taken aback by a comment made regarding the department of outgoing Chair of the Faculty Lawrence S. Bacow '72. The speaker made note of how Bacow was from one of the "lesser" schools of the Institute since he is a member of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning in the School of Architecture and Planning.
I do realize that the comment was made during a point in the evening when other faculty members roasted Bacow and was probably just meant as a joke. However, the fact that the line even came from a faculty member's lips is pretty disturbing considering that the faculty is in the midst of a discussion about improving the writing requirement at MIT and determining the future role of the humanities at the Institute. In my opinion, the line just reflects a larger view held on this campus that science and engineering majors are superior to majors not in these disciplines, particularly the humanities and social sciences.
For most students on this campus, humanities are seen as the easy way to an MIT degree - fun or unnecessary classes. In their minds, writing is just not as much work as a problem set. Well, I think it's time we all face it. This is MIT. Anything you study here is going to be work.
Solving a biology problem set, putting the finishing touches on your Computation Structures (6.004) lab kit, or writing a paper on post-World War II U.S. policy in Japan - all three tasks relate to direct real world problems. All deal with complex ideas and situations.
Many engineers and scientists who remain focused on their research forget that there is a larger world out there. Humanities often look at this larger world. With this picture in mind, if what you are researching is really going to make a difference to the world, how do you present your findings to enrich the community's larger body of knowledge?
People are recognizing more and more that writing skills are just as important to engineers and scientists as they are to humanists. To gain prestige and standing in a scientific community, a researcher's findings must be presented in a journal appropriate for his or her respective field. In an age where research can be quickly disseminated, it is also important that these ideas be presented as clearly as possible.
However, it is pretty obvious that the writing skills of MIT students are far below that of students at comparable institutions. To the students who gripe about how they have to take a writing class, I pose the following question: When you have completed the research that will win you the Nobel Prize, how will you write it up to let others know about it?
I have seen many students complain about how they have to take humanities classes in order to graduate in a variety of contexts, most recently as a member of the studentadvisory committee to the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning. "Why should we study writing if we're engineers? Just get me a job," the argument goes. Well, judging by how poorly thought out and argued these arguments have been, I would say it was pretty apparent why we should be studying humanities.
The current writing requirement and the humanities requirement in general are too poorly thought out and implemented. MIT's current undergraduate curriculum helps students generate ideas, but it doesn't enable students to sell them to the larger community.
By only setting two checkpoints in the requirement - Phase I and Phase II - the system allows undergraduates to just squeak by. If you can take a six-unit workshop to pass each of the two phases, then is the writing requirement actually a requirement or just a formality? Does the system actually improve anyone's writing?
MIT should make the effort to tie writing more directly into the general curriculum. Several departments now have classes with attached writing seminars. These practica are one good way to make writing more relevant to MIT students. By making students think about what they are presenting, the classes force students to make their arguments more concise and clear. These writing skills will benefit them later in their research.
If the comment I have taken issue with is from - as a dean sitting next to me put it - "a self-selecting group of people," then I wonder what the general faculty thinks of writing. Then again, they are probably too absorbed in their research to worry about it.