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Re-engineering the HASS Requirement For Today...s Needs

By Justin Wong

Early in my academic program, I welcomed the humanities requirement as a break from my engineering and math courses, but through the years I have come to curse it for diverting my focus from the rigorous technical classes essential to my career development. After all, I came to MIT to be an engineer. While a curriculum with a humanities component undoubtedly promotes a desirably broader personal worldview, the eight-subject HASS requirement overestimates the HASS exposure necessary for such spiritual growth. HASS should complement, not detract from the engineering education most students come here to receive.

It is often argued that eight HASS classes are needed to help MIT students become well-rounded. But is the deficiency in “well-roundedness” among students at the Institute large enough to warrant that many HASS subjects? The admissions office has already filled the stages, playing fields, courts, dance floors, publication offices, arenas, rehearsal rooms, and student governments of MIT and hundreds of other activities with students who pursue interests outside the classroom. Perhaps our technical intensity makes our other interests seem paltry by comparison. But in an absolute sense, we are not wanting in pursuits outside academics. Eight HASS courses far exceed the amount necessary to remedy a deficiency that isn’t as large as humanities proponents believe it to be.

Besides, the marginal benefit of additional humanities subjects decreases beyond a certain number of classes, which I believe eight far overshoots. After the initial novelty wears off, HASS becomes just another time sink, like taking showers, that is simply not taken that seriously.

Development of communication skills is cited as another reason for the current HASS requirement. However, the solution does not address the problem. The two required communications intensive (CI-H) classes do not even cultivate the kind of communication useful in industry. Writing about plays and foreign policy, for example, is very different from writing memos to technical colleagues or giving presentations to clients. The other six humanities courses may offer opportunities for class discussion and sundry written work, but the subject matter, and not development as a communicator, is the primary focus in those classes. Class discussions where the word “like” peppers everyone’s speech does not improve speaking ability. If the goal is to teach communication, then teach communication, not some other topic in the hope that oratorical prowess will spontaneously appear.

Gaining a broader, more critical view of the world is another oft-advanced argument for the current HASS requirement. It’s a noble goal, but eight classes are too many. MIT students are already involved in many pursuits outside of class and during summers that introduce them to new ways of seeing things. Even a job in industry will teach students about diversity in the workplace and the business culture supporting the engines of productivity. Interaction with colleagues of different generations is sure to be an eye-opener as well. There is also irony in the idea that students must be taught critical thinking. How can students develop the capacity for independent judgment when other frameworks for thought are forced upon them? HASS should provide occasional, limited guidance for personal development rather than a deluge of readings and ivory tower philosophizing. Besides, the MIT community already is diverse enough for students’ beliefs and assumptions to be challenged outside of class.

With a more realistic appraisal of the value of HASS classes in hand, the eight-class requirement hardly seems worth the tradeoff in ability to take subjects germane to the career goals that students come here to pursue. If the humanities requirement were reduced, engineering majors, for example, could take advanced math subjects or more specialized classes in their respective fields of study to enhance their appeal to employers, graduate schools and other clients of technical expertise. The US is falling behind in technical aptitude. American companies are increasingly looking elsewhere for engineering talent; they have started research and design centers in other countries. The world is catching up and we have to race ahead again. What’s the point of having a “broad outlook” of the world if we’re looking at it from underneath?

Therefore, I propose the following changes to the HASS requirement:

1. Reduce the HASS requirement from eight to four classes.

2. Of the four required HASS classes, (a) one should be a pure communications course modeled on 15.279 (Management Communication for Undergraduates), and (b) the remaining three can be of each student’s choosing.

3. Eliminate the distribution and concentration requirements, which would become unnecessary given fewer classes to structure.

The four freed class slots would be reserved for student choice; faculty would be forbidden from imposing requirements. Students can use these four freed slots to take additional subjects recommended by their departments to enhance their professional skill set, to participate in hands-on activities like a UROP, to pursue a minor, to explore another major, or even to take more HASS subjects. Students who wish to take eight HASS classes can still do so without the administration forcing unwilling students to do the same.

The communication subject would teach students how to write and speak concisely, correctly, and in an organized manner, to speak with poise, to avoid filler words, to adapt to different audiences and cultures, and to create polished presentations simple in style, yet rich in content. Students would practice these skills through many drills and exercises, using video to critique speaking style and content. I learned more useful communication skills in 15.279, the class I hold up as a model, than in all my HASS classes combined.

AP credit should still not be used to fulfill the reduced humanities requirement. MIT offers a unique flavor to humanities that undergraduates should still be required to experience, but in moderation.

The proposal would still expose students to the softer subjects and provide them that cherished multi-faceted perspective, but it wouldn’t do so at the expense of honing the technical edge that distinguishes MIT graduates. The communication class sharpens the focus on developing speaking and writing ability by directly teaching those skills, instead of smearing that goal across two CI-H classes whose assignments exercise those skills only incidentally.