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Science Studies Would Enrich GIR

Beckett W. Sterner

In reconsidering its General Institute Requirements, MIT has pursued at least two major goals. One is to update the curriculum requirements to satisfy present needs while guarding against an onerous load of requirements by keeping them simple and flexible. A second goal has been to add more energy and common spirit to the freshman year. So far, the GIR committee has treated the science requirements in detail, but has encountered greater difficulty with improving the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences requirements. The HASS requirements, especially those involving CI-H and CI-M classes, are complex and vary greatly in the quality of their implementation across classes and departments. For many students, the intended purpose of the HASS requirements — a general education about the qualities of human existence — fails to be relevant to them personally or professionally.

The suggestion I make here has the potential to address many of the above problems: I propose that MIT require all freshmen to take a semester of Science Studies, broadly conceived as the cultural, social and logical critiques of science and technology. The class would demonstrate the relevance of the humanities to MIT undergraduates, provide a basis for lively intellectual discussion for freshmen, and put MIT on the cutting edge of the growing convergence between the concerns of science and society.

Science Studies is a growing field that crosses many disciplines to study science as a human practice, recognizing the essential and central role of people in creating knowledge. (While there are a number of similar fields, including Science, Technology and Society at MIT, I use Science Studies as the closest to my intended focus.) This class would be highly controversial, but such controversy would only work to its advantage, because the class would force students to confront their preconceptions about science and engineering.

To support my suggestion, I will discuss the importance and relevance of the class’s content to students and to MIT’s goals as an institution overall. I will also sketch out a possible way to accommodate the requirement in the GIRs.

Scientists and engineers who claim to act in the best interests of society must consider the impacts of their actions on a broad scale. The design of technology or research agendas can dramatically shape their consequences; questions of values, culture and politics live in the very heart of the processes by which science and engineering produce knowledge and technology. While they have been ignored or denied in the past, a deeper understanding of how these factors figure in science and engineering as distinctly human enterprises promises practical benefits.

For science, this mixing of what we presumed to be separate poses a challenge for the objectivity of knowledge.

MIT anthropology professor Stefan Helmreich has documented how the cultural and economic origins of scientists at the Sante Fe Institute influenced their concept of “life” as a scientific idea and how humans could synthesize it artificially. MIT Professor Sherry Turkle has explored in detail how technological objects such as computers, online games, and robots challenge our notions of what it means to be alive and what is a fulfilling life. She has also explored how computers and the internet are transforming our social lives. Historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn has challenged the “progress” of science as in fact no more than a succession of disjoint paradigms of knowledge that encompassed ever more physical phenomena without necessarily describing the true nature of reality more accurately. These are only a few examples of the many ways in which the conventional assumptions of scientists about what they do have been opened up to questioning. Although some have sought to use these questions to undermine science itself, a more robust position welcomes these questions as ultimately beneficial to the primary goal of science: producing a rational understanding of reality.

A class that raised these issues for debate is therefore perfectly aligned with MIT’s goals for its technical and professional curriculum. That this alignment is possible marks an astounding change in the relationship of the humanities to science and engineering, which will continue to grow in importance over time. For MIT to recognize this in its undergraduate curriculum would show a far-sighted vision and demonstrate leadership in almost every discipline of academia.

As a common experience in the freshman year, the class would give students something worth talking about in the best tradition of the liberal arts, as well encourage them to think critically about science and engineering in novel ways. The class would serve as a bridge to the humanities for students who saw them as irrelevant before — obviously, nothing can force them to cross that bridge, but the choice should be a conscious one.

As a practical matter, the class would necessarily cover material from a number of disciplines: STS, anthropology, philosophy, history, and sociology. It could thus serve as a unique introduction to many disciplines, although it would not function simply as a survey course: the material would be aimed at critical questions about science and engineering as practices, such as, “How do social values influence science?” In terms of MIT’s current requirements, the class is an obvious candidate to be a HASS-D and even CI-H class (i.e. satisfies a distribution requirement and communication-intensive requirement), and thus would not interfere with the concentration requirement that students pursue three or more classes in a single HASS discipline such as music or economics. It could also count as one of the eight required HASS-designated classes. Thus the class would not increase the total number of requirements, and only marginally decrease the choices available to students. The practicalities of holding enough small (25–30 students) sessions of the class for the entire freshman class to enroll would be more challenging. However, by allowing freshmen to take the class either fall or spring term, the task would be easier, and would also allow any students who fail MIT’s Freshman Essay Examination to take a remedial writing class in the fall. Moreover, the requirement would allow MIT to make a more concerted effort to teach writing skills to all students in a uniform way, allowing other HASS classes to assume a higher degree of average competency.

The proposed requirement is therefore feasible in practice, satisfies many of MIT’s major educational goals, and is sufficiently foundational to our understanding of science and engineering to merit inclusion in the GIRs. I respectfully submit it for the consideration of the GIR committee, the Student Advisory Committee, and the MIT community.

Beckett W. Sterner is a member of the class of 2006 and was The Tech’s Editor in Chief from mid April 2004 to Jan 2005.