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Bringing Back the Arts

Elaine Wan

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is world famous for providing its students with an exceptional engineering education. The U.S. News and World Report reminds us of this every year by ranking us #1 amongst the other engineering schools in the nation. The international and national community focus their attention on us whenever they are in search of technical advances. The most recent example of this is the establishment of MIT’s alliance with Malaysia to form the Malaysia University of Science and Technology.

There is no doubt that MIT is the place to be if you have interests in science and math. Our quantitative skills are continually sharpened by the Institute’s faculty, facilities and curriculum. The available educational resources are equally matched by the student body’s enthusiasm for the sciences and engineering. Most incoming freshmen have SAT math scores above 750. But if Institute and student interests are not aimed at subjects besides science and math, subjects like humanities, communication and writing skills, then is it right to neglect or avoid studies in those areas?

The most only outright answer is, “No.” Just because we are an engineering school does not mean that we should not focus our attention on our communication skills. The fact that most students here lack reading and writing skills is more of a reason for us to focus on preventing the further degradation of our verbal and composition skills.

When I shake President Charles Vest’s hand in 2001 to receive my bachelor’s degree in Science, I want to have the unwavering confidence to tell my parents and friends that my fours years in college has given me proficiency not only in math and science but also in writing, reading and speaking. After I graduate, I want to be able to run a Western blot, take a surface integral, identify a chiral molecule and give a 15-minute presentation without stammering or inserting the word “like” every 2 seconds. Most importantly, I want to be able to say that my four years at MIT was worth every penny, every all nighter, every problem set, or HASS paper, because they all made my undergraduate education complete and satisfying. Unfortunately, the results of the 1998 Senior Survey indicate there is a 62 percent chance that two years from now, I will feel that my communication skills are lacking.

The dim interest in the humanities has been an Institute concern for a long time and this concern has resurfaced with the report from the Senior Survey. In a previous column [“MIT Needs a More Serious Attitude on the Humanities,” May 9, 1997], Erik S. Balsley '97 indicates that most students do not take HASS classes seriously because they do not see the direct applications of such studies in their future since most engineering jobs only require technical skills. Some students argue that classes in the humanities distract from their focuses on science, math and engineering. Unfortunately, this is the attitude that has led to criticism from others Ivy League schools and other liberal arts colleges. Although, this criticism has never been explicit, MIT students have been characterized as less than well-rounded.

The reality is that we need communication skills regardless of the Institute’s future or our choice of profession. How are we going to help Malaysia build a new engineering school if we can’t communicate with them or advertise the importance of such a project? If you are a biology, chemistry or physics major, you need to publish your findings in a journal that clearly states your hypotheses, methods, data and conclusion. You will have to give talks. If you are an engineering major, you will have to use both your writing and speaking skills to make your product attractive to users and investors.

Proficiency in communication skills involves development in reading, speaking and writing English. Although our HASS Department offer a diverse course selection ranging from foreign language and anthropology to philosophy and creative writing, only a handful of students choose to major in such studies, and only 200-300 students each year decide to minor in a HASS subject. There are also students who feel they can demonstrate proficiency in communication in English by taking classes in economics, a mostly quantitative study, or studying a foreign language.

In 1997, the administration passed a motion to create a new undergraduate communication requirement that would add on to the Freshmen Essay Evaluation, HASS requirement, and the Phase I and Phase II system to check for communication competency. However, the communication requirement was never defined and has still not taken shape. The Senior Survey has shown that communication skills are necessary but undervalued and incomplete in MIT education.

Communication is an important skill that cannot be acquired overnight or learned from a textbook. Large classes in big lecture halls will not increase interaction amongst students. Assigning more problem sets will not improve our grammar or eloquence. HASS classes should require intense verbal interaction, writing and reading assignments that help develop interest in ethical and campus issues, while training us to consider the opinions of our fellow classmates in small, rotating, work groups.

Students who are majoring in science and engineering must realize that although it is important to understand the details of the studies within our majors, it is also important to have a diverse education which includes improving our reading, writing and speaking skills. It is time to make changes to our curriculum with the interests of the Institute and students in mind to demonstrate that MIT is not only the #1 school in engineering, but the #1 school in everything.