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Message from the Chair

MIT Undergraduate Education at a Crossroads

Susan S. Silbey, Rick Danheiser, W. Craig Carter

Whatever path one travels, Robert Frost taught us, we may come to think over time that the choice was consequential, "made all the difference." But, along any selected path, one thing always leads to another and different routes each have attractions. As Frost was in the yellow wood a century ago, MIT education is now unquestionably at a similar crossroads. Changes in technology, in the global economy, in our democracy, in our students, and in vehicles for delivering education challenge us to examine the path we have hewn. We can continue along the same route, or we can change directions, very slightly or significantly. The choices, however, are ours – stay the course or make adjustments. Although the curriculum is iteratively shaped through the decisions we continually make in departments and in faculty committees, the accumulated changes beg us to give more than routine attention at this moment to the shape and content of the MIT undergraduate degrees. If we are to provide responsible guidance for our students now, and stewardship for the Institute into the future, we ought to consider the curricular paths we offer and do so through actively engaged, intense deliberation.

Your faculty officers are not alone in recognizing the changes in the world and in our students that have brought us to a crossroads. Consider the recent spate of new majors, experiments, and proposals including, for example, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz's Design Class on the First Year Experience, the NEET (New Engineering Education Transformation) experiment, the First Year Projects Initiative, the proliferation of "flexible majors," the review of whether ABET certification is necessary for engineering degrees, calls for new GIRs in computational thinking, statistics, as well as ethics and public policy.

To initiate a broad and deep, participatory and energetic, conversation about the MIT undergraduate program, we are hosting an all-day workshop on June 14. The workshop will explore the path we have been following and the crossroads we face.

Although we are orchestrating the workshop, we do not have any preconceptions about what its outcomes will be: what is desirable in the way of changes and what is worth preserving. We are open to anything. We are proposing a conversation, more specifically, a process, not a conclusion.

We are encouraged in this effort by the thoughtful exchanges at recent faculty meetings as curricular proposals have been brought for open debate. We expect the workshop to consider the basic components of the undergraduate academic program, including its structure or configuration (i.e., the number of subjects and hours for a degree); the distribution of content (i.e., subject matters, choices, options and flexibility); and, variations in pedagogy (i.e., vehicles for delivery, forms of student-faculty and student-to-student interactions). Although we wish to prescribe little beyond a process for deliberation, we hope the conversation will generate a variety of curricular paths that will initiate detailed discussion and exploration beyond the workshop itself.

Our goal is to examine the current undergraduate program critically from the perspective of what is best for our students in the twenty-first century. Their needs, no less than their desires, are markedly different from those of students 50 and 60 years ago. Our current students encounter a world more unsettled than it has been for decades, a time of economic, political, and environmental uncertainty.

Student anxieties about the future are understandably more intense than the usual angst youth experience as they move from adolescence to adulthood. Students voice apprehension about the future of the environment, about the prospects of nuclear war, and certainly most immediately about the prospects for meaningful and lucrative employment. They are worried, but they are also passionate. They seek better advising and mentoring to explore options and seek flexibility to respond to both positive and negative course experiences. They embrace MIT's ambition to make a better world and sometimes recognize the limits of what they do not understand. They seek our guidance.

Students' unease may not be expressed in quite the same ways as the faculty's, although there are important convergences, some involving issues concerning the HASS component of the GIRs. Faculty voice concerns about enrollments driven by markets for jobs rather than educational experimentation and curiosity, radically skewing the distribution of students across subjects. While some faculty worry about an excess of theoretical knowledge and insufficient hands-on project learning where innovation thrives, others are also distressed by the insufficient attention to the consequences of technological inventions. Students lack knowledge of history and social organization, and so they keep bumping into these unseen forces with which they are too often ill-equipped to recognize or manage. This is a world of considerably more knowledge than we had a century, even a half-century ago; employers expect scientific and technological skills in just about all workplaces, jobs MIT students are especially well equipped to fill. Yet, at the same time, the need for a workforce knowledgeable about public policy and experienced in ethical decision-making and responsible citizenship has never been greater. As the collective consequences of single, perhaps individual decisions propagate in a digitally connected world, our students, some faculty say, seem to display a noticeably reduced lack of commitment to the public collective, preoccupied with individual autonomy. The better world they imagine is often one where each person should be an agent of entirely unconstrained desire.

Turning to the science/math/engineering (SME) component of the GIRs, recent discussions of a computational thinking requirement have triggered a general discussion of the SME GIRs. While there is no consensus about how to move forward, few faculty members disagree that computational thinking is now an essential tool in an educated person's toolbox (although there are more than a few disagreements on the definition of computational thinking). But if we, and colleagues elsewhere, agree that this is important, how many faculty would agree that the addition of that tool is wiser than other possibilities? Across the faculty we have heard compelling arguments that probability and statistics, ethics, history, and public policy are equally valid as General Institute Requirements.

Repeatedly, past reviews have identified three aims for the GIR component of the MIT undergraduate curriculum. First, the SME GIRs provide our students with foundational building blocks – a common body of knowledge that departments can then assume in teaching advanced subjects. Second, the GIRs confer basic literacy in essential fields by providing substantive knowledge in areas with which every MIT graduate should be familiar. Finally, the GIRs introduce students to methods for creative analytical thinking by equipping students with portable tools and strategies for problem solving applicable to a variety of different kinds of knowledge and thought.

Are these aims still valid as goals for the General Institute Requirements? How well do the current offerings in physics, biology, chemistry, math, and the laboratory and REST subjects fulfill these objectives? Are there other subjects that ought to be included as SME requirements? As substitutes for existing GIRs, or as alternatives? Are HASS GIRs working as planned? Can the first-year curriculum be revitalized by the inclusion of more hands-on and project experiences? Should we incorporate more flexibility in the GIRs, empowering students to explore more diverse subjects early on? These are all questions that we hope to address in the June workshop. 
 
Our students are graduating into a world with a society – and its science and technology – that would be unrecognizable to those who conceived the current configuration of the MIT degree. If we agree that our existing curriculum ought to provide the foundation to be a responsible citizen in this brave new world, then we should evaluate its design and effectiveness to assure that we achieve its goals.

Real education certainly isn't easy, and perhaps it shouldn't be. Focused mental exercise is the gift we hope to give our students. Facts (or those bits and bytes of information represented to be facts) are now a cheap commodity. Determining fact from fiction is a skill we hope to teach. Alumni who discover and analyze facts are what we hope to educate. The inevitable tension between securing the immediate-benefit of specialization and the long-term rewards of general-background education are a continuing challenge for higher education. More concretely, while a specific degree may help a student find a particular job, it may not help them progress in that job. From this viewpoint, MIT's fundamental education – experienced as the ability to learn new things – will likely provide the most tangible and rewarding future benefits.

With the June 14 workshop, we hope to move beyond our familiar and otherwise well-functioning committee processes. If MIT is the world's premier technological institution, this status comes with great responsibility. Perhaps we should consider our self-reflective inquiry not as just one more university taking a hard look at itself, and not just an organization's response to consumer demands, but as an opportunity to set a new standard for scientific and technological literacy. If we cannot avoid the significance of this tumultuous historical moment when history seems to have turned a corner, we certainly need to look at our role in its emergence. How did we get here, nationally and locally, and at MIT? Is it too self-important to think that something about our education has fed, not only among our own graduates but the public at large, an addiction to tweeting and anonymous surveillance, fake news and widespread bullying, all in the name of autonomy and connection?

We want to engage the faculty's collective wisdom and experience to think together about the future of our students and what well-educated alumni need from us now. The workshop is not aimed at making decisions. It will be about imagining possible futures. Certainly MIT is not going to abandon what we have done well. We do need, however, to consider carefully what we have achieved. Detail will be needed to flesh out schematic possibilities, and thus subsequent or parallel in-depth reviews of the GIRs should be undertaken along with a variety of options for the curriculum writ large. All proposals face practical constraints: about requirements, about options, flexible alternatives, and the time limit of eight semesters.

Eventually, we must discuss the curriculum, including the GIRs, and how they relate to what we – the faculty – believe would be best for our future alumni. After discussion, to begin in June and certainly continue next year, it may be that no change occurs at all. It would be a tragedy, however, if there were no discussion at all.

MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXX No. 4, March/April 2018