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Disturbing Senior Survey Results

As a relatively new member of the MIT community and one anxious to learn more about the overall educational environment of the Institute, I read with great interest the findings of the recent 1998 Senior Survey, conducted by the Office of Academic Services.

While the survey saw only 35 percent participation by the senior class, the 460 respondents provide substantial evidence that the Institute is failing to educate properly its students. I am specifically concerned with the student responses to the questions, "How important to you personally are each of the following types of knowledge and abilities," and the follow-up question, "To what extent has your MIT education improved the following types of knowledge and abilities?"

At first glance, the findings from the first question appear mundane and predictable: 100 percent of respondents feel that analytical and problem-solving skills, writing skills, and academic self-confidence are important or very important to them. MIT seniors overwhelmingly express the importance they place on good writing, public speaking, an artistic aesthetic, awareness of social issues, and the body politic. Awareness of ethical issues, evaluating the role of science and technology in society, and placing current problems in a historical, cultural, or political perspective were rated lower, but still over 80% of respondents called these goals important or very important.

The unsettling part of the survey is the students' response to the question, "To what extent has your MIT education improved the following types of knowledge and abilities?" In what I would consider a great failure of any university and egregious in the case of a world-renowned institution like MIT, the following results stand out:

62% of students feel that four years at MIT improved their ability to write not at all or only a little.

65% of students feel that four years at MIT improved their creative ability not at all or only a little.

70% of respondents feel that four years at MIT improved their appreciation of literature, art, music and drama not at all or only a little.

74% of students feel that four years at MIT improved their ability to place current problems in a historical, cultural, or political perspective not at all or only a little.

75% of students feel that four years at MIT improved their awareness of ethical issues not at all or only a little.

82% of students feel that four years at MIT improved their awareness of social and political issues not at all or only a little.

There are some signs of hope. I am aware of movement within the Institute to change, and hopefully improve, the way writing is taught, at least with respect to the current Phase II requirement. I also applaud articles like "Does Poetry Matter?" by Professor John Hildebidle (MIT Faculty Newsletter, November/December 1998), the initiative of the recently organized New Horizons Group, and similar organizations at MIT and their efforts to spur socio-political discourse between students, staff and faculty. I see challenges for the entire MIT community and particularly the central administration. The former must engage themselves more overtly in seeking and espousing the ideals of a liberal education, as this will engage and entice others to similar breadth of discovery. The administration must produce the leadership and resources necessary to alter the staid environment which has produced these statistics.

Finally, 98 percent of students feel that their time at MIT has moderately or greatly improved their analytical and problem-solving skills. For some reason, and despite being an engineer myself, I can't seem to get up and cheer.

Scott D. Sewell

Academic Adminsitrator

Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences