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Three Problems For MIT

Dan Tortorice

MIT has given me many problem sets over the past four years. Now, as I approach my graduation, I’d like to give a problem set.

Problem 1: How do we fit well-rounded classes into MIT's narrow curriculum?

The MIT admissions committee has taken pains to admit students with a wide array of interests. No longer is it interested in the student whose sole hobby is factorization. At first glance it seems that MIT allows incoming students to pursue any academic interest. Classes are offered in a plethora of fields including humanities, and humanities classes are often small, allowing students to receive personal attention. Despite these options, MIT is still a difficult place to pursue non-science interests.

The reason lies not in the Institute’s options but in its attitude. How often do MIT students describe their class schedules like this: 6.003, 14.02, 6.046, and a HASS? This ubiquitous statement relegates academic interest in the humanities to a position lower than interest in science or engineering. Often when I inform students that I am taking a playwriting class I’m asked, “Why are you taking that?” or “Do you need it for your HASS requirement?” I answer, “No, I don’t need to take it; I want to.” But I’m always left with the feeling that my peers can’t understand why I’d be interested in something so equationless.

You may think that students who come to MIT are not interested in non-science/engineering fields, at least not to the extent to which they are interested in science. Why else would they have chosen MIT? But how many high school seniors know what they want to do with their lives? Haven’t we all met the excited freshman who wanted to major in physics only to spend freshman year hating 8.01 and voting for Hal Bradt in the Big Screw contest?

As MIT admits more “well-rounded” people, it will admit more and more people who don’t know what they want to do, or who would rather pursue an interest outside science and engineering. But if the MIT culture doesn’t change, these students will be discouraged from pursuing what they love. They will choose instead something that they don’t like but that is accepted. And they will be unhappy. Unless we can change MIT’s culture, I fear that we will be admitting more and more unhappy people.

Problem 2: How can we deal with gender segregation in classes across MIT?

As a math major I’ve noticed there are some classes at the Institute that make me think I’m in the 1920s. I’m in two math classes this term. The first class has one female in it; the other has two. In total the two classes have at least 35 students. While MIT has been successful in shrinking the overall male-to-female ratio, it has not been successful in changing the ratio in all majors and all classes. One can argue that this should not be a goal of MIT. That is fair enough, but to be the only female in a class must be a bit disconcerting. If MIT wants all majors and classes to be comfortable environments for females, it must address this problem.

Problem 3: How can we make MIT a more creative environment?

Whenever I begin a piece of creative writing, be it a short story or a play, I need to leave my normal MIT life and go somewhere different. Leaving campus is often the most inspiring course of action, but given time constraints I will often just go to the coffeehouse, which is the most non-MIT MIT place I know of. There is something about MIT that stifles my ability to reach beyond the mundane aspects of my life and find something insightful to express. Perhaps it’s the MIT approach to education: the so-called firehose that inundates you with knowledge but gives scarce time for you to question, ponder, and extend that knowledge.

Now you might wonder why this is important. MIT is hardly in the business of training creative writers, but there’s something creative about scientific research as well. Great researchers have the ability to reach beyond the current knowledge of their discipline and find a new insight. MIT’s economics PhD program has turned out numerous Nobel Prize winners, yet an MIT undergraduate has never won an economics Nobel. If MIT wants its undergraduates to become world-class researchers it must find ways to promote creativity.

MIT has been a great place to go to school. I’ve learned much and been well-prepared for my life, and I feel blessed to attend MIT. But what makes the Institute unique has also created problems, and in solving these problems MIT can make itself a better educational institution.