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Writing to A Higher Purpose

Naveen Sunkavally

Why do we write? One reason is to inform. The vast majority of newspapers, scientific journals, and manuals such as driver's handbooks in Massachusetts satisfy this purpose. Another reason is to persuade. This column is an example. And the last reason to write is to entertain. Many English papers fulfill this purpose unintentionally.

The question of why we write is a simple one with obvious answers, yet the current student debate on the writing requirement, as reflected through a recent editorial in The MITObserver and a column by Michael J. Ring in The Tech, has ignored this question's implications. The authors have called for a complete overhaul of the writing requirement, but the solutions they propose are no better than the current situation.

Take Ring's argument in The Tech ["Phasing In a New Writing Requirement," Sept. 19]. Ring calls the Freshman Essay Evaluation "trivial" and claims that the questions have "no application to science, engineering, economics, architecture, or any other major here." Ring proposes that the FEE "be reoriented towards challenging scientific questions, and it should allow ample time for students to properly compose their thoughts." Ring also raises several alternatives for passing Phase One. He believes that a score of five on the Advanced Placement in Literature, membership in a campus publication, or papers from high school should suffice.

The MIT Observer's solution is no better. The MIT Observer's editorial ["Faculty Resolution Requires Debate On Writing Requirement," Sept. 17] states that MIT students "should be taught to write within fields that are most important to them" - in other words, science and engineering fields. The MIT Observer feels that MIT students are already overworked and that "humanities subjects may not be the best way to teach scientists and engineers how to write."

The biggest and most important flaw with both The MIT Observer's and Ring's solutions pertain to the question I posed earlier: Why do we write? By insisting that the writing requirement focus solely on science and engineering applications, they have reduced the purpose of writing to one purpose: to inform. For them, writing no longer serves the functions of entertainment or persuasion. Surely science can not teach one the ability to persuade and to write for pleasure.

At least the current writing requirement has the intention of broadening the education of a MIT student, of fostering an appreciation for writing. The MIT Observer's and Ring's proposals turn writing into a mere support system for science. Any improvement in the writing requirement should teach students to write well in all three areas: persuasion, information, and pleasure.

The FEE, as it now stands, is an effective way of promoting all three of these styles of writing. Its broad questions give students freedom and creativity in their writing. If the test asked questions pertaining to purely technical subjects, then a vast majority of the freshman population would have no clue what to write. Indeed, all freshman should take the FEE regardless of their AP scores.

The results from the FEE would not allow students to pass Phase One but merely act as indicators of a student's writing ability. I believe all students should take a writing class their freshman year, and that the FEE should give students an idea of what level of a writing class to take. Practice is the best way to teach good writing. Lamenting that students are overworked does not reduce the importance of writing and place it secondary to science and engineering. If time restraints are the real concern, perhaps the answer is for MIT to replace one HASS-Distribution class with a writing class.

The debate over the writing requirement at MITwill be central to determining the how broad an education students should receive here and to what extent the school wishes to redefine its reputation as a technical school. If the Institute wishes to merely treat writing as a supplement to science, then following the current course or adopting solutions proposed by The MIT Observer and Michael Ring would suffice. On other hand, if MIT wishes to teach students how to write, then it should espouse a solution that separates writing from science and allows students to steadily improve their writing skills over their years here.