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In Defense of HASS: A Humanist Responds

Peter A. Shulman

Do we value the humanities too much at MIT? Should we slice the eight subject HASS requirement in half? These are the questions Justin Wong asks us in his recent opinion piece of September 19. They are provocative questions that deserve vigorous discussion.

I disagree with Mr. Wong, but I do not propose to refute him point by point. Instead, I want to raise my own question about the measure of value in education. And then I want to relate an unusual story from the history of the Institute, to my knowledge never before told in print.

Woven into Mr. Wong’s argument are repeated references to the questionable usefulness of a HASS education for life beyond the classroom. His measure of HASS’s value, if I understand him, is largely by its applicability to professional pursuits. These classes take time away from the technical subjects “essential to my career development,” he writes. They do not develop skills for “writing memos to technical colleagues or giving presentations to clients.” HASS subjects inundate students with “a deluge of readings and ivory tower philosophizing.” Fittingly, the one class he suggests requiring of all students he bases on management communication.

I’d like to ask whether “usefulness” is the appropriate measure of a humanistic or artistic education. I think it is not. These subjects may be useful (those of us who devote our careers to these fields certainly hope there’s something valuable to them) but I want to suggest that usefulness is not the appropriate yardstick by which we judge them.

To understand why the humanities, arts, and social sciences play such an essential role at the Institute, we need only look at Killian Court. There, inscribed along the upper walls of the court’s four pavilions, one hundred and ten names signal to the world the heroes of our peculiar little culture. Ten of these names tower above the rest, marking some of the most monumental achievements of the human mind: Aristotle, Archimedes, Newton, Darwin, Shakespeare, Copernicus — wait, come again? Shakespeare? He’s not in Killian Court, is he?

No, he’s not. But he almost was. And his proposed inclusion among these top ten names, and his eventual removal from the list, capture an enduring tension about the educational role of the humanities and arts at MIT. Here’s the story:

It was the winter of 1915. MIT’s sixth president, Richard Maclaurin, was preparing to bring the Institute into a new era, relocating the campus from its crowded home in the Back Bay to a new building complex on Cambridge landfill abutting the Charles River.

Maclaurin received a letter from an alumnus. In the letter, a suggestion. Shouldn’t the new buildings include some sort of inscription? Perhaps the one that adorned the entrance to Plato’s famous Academy in Athens: “Let no one ignorant of Geometry presume to enter here.” Appropriate words for the Institute, no?

Yes, they were, and the symbolism of an inscription appealed to Maclaurin. But he had another idea. Why not etch the names of eminent figures from the history of science and engineering? What better way to distinguish MIT from its fellow universities? What better way to symbolize our ideals?

Excited, he wrote his faculty. He inquired about the men (they were presumed to be men) who contributed most to the disciplines represented at the Institute.

The exercise stimulated the passions of the faculty as well as the corporation. Symbols, after all, are laden with emotional importance. That is why we respond to them. One correspondent thought the list included too many architects. Another protested that there were too few.

And then there was Shakespeare.

For the ten massive names, Maclaurin selected the least contentious major figures: Aristotle, Copernicus, Newton (the Anglophile Maclaurin managed to keep Leibnitz off the list altogether), Faraday, Darwin, and Lavoisier. For the rest, he entertained Pasteur, Leonardo da Vinci, Archimedes, Shakespeare, and the American physicist Joseph Henry. Henry was tossed out quickly. Shakespeare was another story.

Maclaurin thought he belonged. After all, literature was taught at MIT. It always had been. So were languages, most importantly French and German. History questions appeared on the school’s earliest admission exams. Maclaurin believed Shakespeare had an important symbolic place at the Institute.

Not all the faculty agreed. Not that Shakespeare wasn’t as important as the others, or as gifted, or as influential, or that he shouldn’t be taught, but that he didn’t belong in the same context. MIT, according to Maclaurin’s opponents, should stick with its central mission: training engineers. Model engineering. Let engineers be the symbols. Besides, if Shakespeare were admitted, things might get out of hand, because by necessity such a list should also include Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Goethe.

After protest from some of the faculty, Maclaurin dug in his heels and articulated his case. It is in this argument that I see the clearest exposition of the role of the humanities and arts at MIT. “I think, after all,” Maclaurin wrote, “that we should include Shakespeare.” Why? If Shakespeare represented only “a master of literary form,” Maclaurin conceded he did not deserve to share space with the iconic heroes of science and engineering. But Maclaurin maintained that this list, and thus the ideals of an MIT education, meant more than becoming a more clever or even successful technician.

What followed in Maclaurin’s letter is worth quoting in full: “Most of the students are prospective engineers and we should suggest to them not only that they should be interested in literary form, but especially that they should be interested in human nature and I should place Shakespeare before them as showing pre-eminently an insight into humanity in its limitless phases.”

Insight into humanity — this, thought Maclaurin, was the essence of education, any education, even at MIT. It might not help in the laboratory, factory floor or board room. It might take time away from calculus, thermodynamics and chemistry. But MIT had a bigger mission. Maclaurin did not only want to make his students better scientists and engineers, he wanted to make them better people. And it is in Shakespeare — Maclaurin’s metonym for the humanities — that the student finds our species’ greatest insight into the human condition.

For reasons that have not surfaced, Maclaurin eventually conceded to his faculty. Shakespeare’s name was replaced with that of Benjamin Franklin. (Not to demean Mr. Franklin’s stature as a man of science, but surviving documents suggest he was chosen more for patriotic reasons than for his contributions to human knowledge.)

Why choose this story to emphasize the importance of the humanities at MIT? Two reasons. First, Maclaurin lost. Shakespeare does not appear in Killian Court. The lesson I take from this episode is not that the humanities do not belong here, but that our school has long discussed and debated how the humanities should fit in with our preeminent technical education.

Second, Maclaurin — a physicist and a lawyer — best captures what I believe are the reasons the HASS requirement should remain a vital part of the MIT curriculum. My teacher, Leo Marx, once related Ezra Pound’s observation that “Artists are the antennae of the race” — they are especially sensitive to changes in their world; they can communicate the human condition and help us find meaning. We can find similar insight in philosophy, anthropology, music, and the rest.

I don’t know if eight classes is the right number. And I concede the HASS requirement will not suit every student. But I do know that just one class can open a student’s mind to new ways of understanding the world. I took one that changed my entire career. But that’s another story.