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Deutch Discusses Higher Education

By Laura McGrath Moulton

Institute Professor John M. Deutch ’61 traded ideas with students, faculty, and alumni on the future of higher education last night in the Technology and Culture Forum’s first presentation of the academic year, entitled “Beyond Science and Engineering.”

Deutch, who is also a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, began with the proposition that the categories of science and engineering are no longer useful intellectual or educational categories. He continued on a wide-ranging discussion, touching on everything from the history of technology to MIT’s Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences requirement.

“There is an idea that there is this thing called science, and then there is this thing called engineering, and that idea is no longer a useful paradigm,” said Deutch. “There will always be a place for pure math or organic chemistry, but the bulk of what we do can’t be divided that way.”

According to Deutch, the science/engineering paradigm does a disservice to the modern intellectual landscape, process of innovation, and process of the application of technology.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, innovation was a linear process,” leading from a new idea to a final product, Deutch said. “In the 50s, if you knew the fundamental science and engineering, you were in a position to exploit the possibilities of the field. You could create new ideas, and the ideas would just sort of apply themselves,” he said. Today, however, a greater emphasis is placed on the application of technology and especially on using technology in socially responsible ways.

Panelists discuss Deutch’s ideas

In the second segment of the forum, a panel made up of Zojeila I. Flores ’00, Kevin M. Shea G, and Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics John-Paul B. Clarke ’91 responded to Deutch’s comments.

Clarke concurred with Deutsch’s thesis, noting that “at the highest levels, the distinctions are already blurred. It’s often hard to tell from a student’s research what department it’s from,” he added. Clarke called for increased opportunities for interactive learning in the 21st century.

Shea, who expects to receive his Ph.D. in Chemistry in the spring, spoke of the need to modify Ph.D. programs to offer students broader options than traditional research positions.

“Students need to be trained to succeed in a variety of careers,” Shea said.

Flores, who is majoring in Biology and minoring in Political Science, spoke about the difficulties of pursuing diverse topics within undergraduate departments.

“My department expects students to go to medical school or a graduate program in molecular or genetic biology. It’s not only the lack of time” that keeps undergraduates from designing an interdisciplinary schedule, Flores said.

“There is a lack of understanding of the options,” Flores said. “My professors would think I’m wasting my time; they would tell me to take advanced courses within my discipline.”

The ensuing discussion among Deutch, the panel, and the audience was moderated by Dean for Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams. Most audience members focused on the possibilities of higher education to create both broadly educated people who can bridge disciplines, and narrowly-focused experts.

The evening was organized by Technology and Culture Forum coordinator Reverend Jane S. Gould and associate coordinator Patricia-Maria Weinmann.