On Tuesday, Sept. 30, The Tech’s “Snapshot of the First Year Survey results for Class of 2018” revealed a startling paradox that has gone unmentioned: The Class of 2018 most desires to “Contribute to Science and Innovation” and least cares about “Participating in Politics or Community Affairs.” But I ask: how one can expect his/her contributions to science and innovation to ever see the light of day (or the market) without understanding and participating in politics and community affairs? Let me be clear that I raise this not to fault the Class of 2018 (when we are 18 and fresh from high school there is much to learn in life), but to ask the greater MIT community, particularly our faculty, department heads, deans, and administrators: what does it mean to divorce scientific achievements from participation in public life?
What good is a contribution to science and innovation if not to better the human condition? Isn’t that what MIT’s motto, Mens et Manus, is all about? If we truly believe that the purpose of everything that we strive to accomplish at MIT is to improve human life and educate students for practical application, then what are we doing to prepare them for action in the messy real world? Failing to include politics and community affairs in our instruction of science, engineering, and innovation is like teaching 18.03 (Differential Equations) without boundary conditions: infinite solutions, but none that are useful for applied problems.
The Institute prepares students well in the realms of science and engineering and has made a fair pass at incorporating the humanities into the undergraduate degree requirements, but it has not done enough to impart the necessity of understanding politics and society not just to its students, but also to its faculty and administration. Although MIT has many wonderful initiatives for public service, it is unclear how our motto influences the hiring and promotion of faculty members, as well as curriculum at all levels of study.
We are an institute of technology — not just science, but science + progress. We would be egotistical fools to believe that progress can made outside of the realm of politics and society. Politics and society are not just the realm of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, or the Sloan School, as has been suggested by some in the School of Engineering. No department or research group lives in a vacuum. The world cannot afford for some of us simply say: let those people deal with the goings on of the public sphere. We must work together within and across schools and departments — engineers with planners and architects, natural scientists with social scientists and business people, academics with professionals.
Lecturers and researchers with practical experience beyond that of lifetime academics, but without the letters Ph.D. after their names, are an invaluable resource on campus. How will their systematic elimination from the faculty impact students’ ability to affect change beyond the Academy? If we break the link between science/innovation and politics/community affairs, we will effectively revoke our mission to society, thereby transforming our motto into nothing more than a smug marketing ploy.
A genuine belief in Mens et Manus should drive the administration to better align its policies and actions with its motto. Rethinking these issues would be a positive start — the formal incentives that govern the hiring, promotion, and pay of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty; the barriers between departments that prevent interdisciplinary research; and the curriculum for both undergraduates and graduate students that largely neglects the role of politics and society in the implementation of technical solutions to real problems.
We owe it to the world to lead the way in solving its greatest challenges — challenges that inextricably link science and innovation to politics and community affairs.
Brittany N. Montgomery is a member of the Class of 2006 and a current Ph.D. student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Rebecca Heywood is a member of the Class of 2012 and a current Masters student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.