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The HASS Requirement is Broken

Amal Dorai

An MIT education involves a seemingly infinite sequence of problem sets in math, science, and engineering, so non-technical intellectual pursuits should be some of the most refreshing and rewarding experiences of the MIT undergraduate experience. Yet the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences requirement, in its current form, breeds resentment and ill will from many who are forced through it.

The failure of the HASS requirement is even more stunning in light of the often-held opinion that HASS professors are some of the most engaging and dedicated teachers at the Institute, and that many students truly enjoy studying things beyond differential equations and procedural abstractions. In light of this, the HASS requirement can be considered too broken to fix and must instead be eliminated and replaced with a meaningful educational program.

I present here the major flaws with the current requirement and toss out a few ideas on how to fix them. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but the sooner we open the discussion, the sooner we can fix the problems.

Problem: The administrators of the HASS requirement treat it as a separate entity.

Solution: The HASS requirement and the technical education in a student’s major cannot be treated as independent. Both teach students how to think, although in different ways, and they must leverage each other to be truly valuable. The director of the HASS program should be an engineering or science professor who believes in a vision of a broadly educated MIT student. He should have the technical aptitude to make real contributions, the communication skills to publicize his ideas, the leadership skills to maximize his impact, the moral fortitude to do what is right, and the perspective to know the various ways in which his ideas will impact society. A professor with such a vision would never think up something like the HASS-D requirement.

Problem: The HASS-D requirement is a poor attempt at forced “well-roundedness.”

Solution: Does anyone seriously think that taking a single class in each of three of five categories could make a person “well-rounded”? This sounds like a stereotypical MIT attempt to reduce a vague concept to a set of curriculum requirements.

Many HASS-Ds are focused on content, so a typical student might take psychology, Shakespeare, and Roman history. This does not constitute well-roundedness. That fashionable word refers to the ability to forge ideas across disciplines, to relate learning in one field to learning in another, and to successfully think and communicate in a variety of intellectual worlds.

If the HASS-D requirement remains, the number of HASS-Ds must go down, and they should focus more on the nature of reading, thinking, and writing in various disciplines. They should encourage students to learn the specifics on their own.

An assignment in a history class, for example, could be to read David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln” and a biography of another wartime leader, then discuss their various choices in class with the Lincoln biography as a reference for comparison.

A literature assignment could be to attend a talk by an author (there are hundreds in the Boston area) and relate the talk to their writings.

Problem: The HASS requirement reduces the MIT curriculum to a set of classes.

Solution: Encourage seminars and other types of faculty interactions. It is quite easy to get through four years at MIT without seeing a professor, except on Registration Day. The popularity of some majors creates large lecture-based classes, which by their nature limit the ability of professors to interact with students in meaningful ways. The vast amount of technical material to be covered also demands that courses move at a quick pace, with little time for unstructured digressions.

The HASS requirement is not subject to these constraints but does little with the added freedom. Some HASS courses function in the same lecture-recitation way, and others try to cover as much content as possible. Courses should cover their material in breadth and cover one subtopic in great depth to capture the richness of the field. But professors should also have the leeway to digress as they see fit, guiding and inspiring student discussions rather than presenting material. Ideally, only the first class should have a plan, which would be listed in the Bulletin, and the rest of the term should evolve based on the particular dynamics of the students. The material covered should be flexible, as it is mainly a vehicle to teach students how to think.

Another way to foster intellectual enrichment is through student dinners, an idea I was introduced to during my year abroad in Cambridge. Three times a year, my tutor (a professor of music) would host his students for dinner. The students were from different majors. After dinner, he served port, appropriately nicknamed the “wine of philosophy.” The conversations continued for hours after the food was gone, usually finishing around two in the morning. We discussed everything under the sun, from music to history to science to whether or not Britain should adopt the Euro. I believe that this idea, implemented at MIT, would be the single biggest improvement to the undergraduate curriculum.

Problem: There isn’t enough time for truly unrestricted electives.

Solution: Cut down the breadth of the advanced requirements in the technical majors. Students need broad exposure to the entire discipline so that they can think intelligently about their field, learn new ideas quickly, and make informed decisions about what they would like to specialize in.

They also need the experience of learning something in depth through several advanced classes, as this is the way people make real contributions to knowledge.

What they shouldn’t try to do at MIT is learn everything they need to know for an industry job. High-tech industries change so fast that static knowledge goes obsolete in a matter of weeks; teaching students what they’ll need to know to design chips at Intel is impossible. Instead, degree curricula should teach students how to learn what they’ll need to know, and how to continuously keep up-to-date on the latest knowledge. Four years is too little to teach students a large corpus of content.

Problem: Economics is a HASS discipline.

Solution: Exclude it. Interested students can take economics electives. Lagrangian optimization is not part of the vision.

The HASS requirement has great potential, but currently exists as an afterthought tacked onto the curriculum. It can be replaced with a program that would form the foundation of an MIT education and would help create leaders in science and technology.

Amal Dorai is a Graduate Student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.