Susan Silbey, a professor of anthropology studying different approaches to engineering education at four schools, including MIT, agrees. “You can’t serve your client or the nation if you cannot communicate or interpret,” she says. “That’s what you do in the humanities.” As for the social sciences, Silbey (who is married to the School of Science dean) says they teach you about social structures; if you don’t know how they work, they become like invisible walls that you keep running into. The humanities requirement aims to give students a shared set of ideas, concepts, and arguments whose merits they can debate–the common academic experience suggested by the term “educational commons.”
The original MIT curriculum was “notably rich in material that we now ascribe to the Division of Humanities,” the Lewis Committee asserted in 1949. For nearly a century, the freshman and sophomore curriculum was also very rigid. Mathematics, mechanical and freehand drawing, elementary mechanics, and chemistry were required of freshmen in 1865 (MIT’s first year of operation), as were English and French. The first catalogue emphasizes “the acquirement on the part of the students of a habit of clear, precise, and accurate statement of their thoughts on paper.” (It also suggested that students should pick up enough Latin in their free time to read “easy Latin prose.”) Sophomores tackled differential and integral calculus, studied how to navigate by means of compass and sextant, made their first forays into experimental physics, and learned to “detect and prove the presence of any chemical element” and to isolate common acids and bases. They also delved into grammar and composition, continued with drawing and French, and began German. Only then were their minds considered sufficiently developed for professional training in one of MIT’s first six courses: mechanical engineering, civil and topographical engineering, geology and mining engineering, practical chemistry, building and architecture, or general science and literature.
Although MIT went through several shifts in focus–including one emphasizing vocational engineering skills, and another emphasizing basic science and research–it had not methodically reviewed the curriculum for nearly a century when Lewis convened his committee. At that time, the Institute was enjoying the public esteem and government funding that followed the contribution of scientists at MIT and elsewhere to the U.S. war effort during World War II. But committee members worried that MIT had yielded to temporary pressures and lost sight of long-term educational goals. Government and private funding were, in their view, driving too much of the Institute’s research. They feared, the museum’s Douglas says, that technology was becoming too centralized under the influence of large companies and the government–and saw that the curricula at MIT and the University of Moscow were remarkably similar. “Could we turn into the Russians inadvertently?” they asked.
Lewis’s committee lamented that MIT had strayed from Rogers’s broad educational vision. MIT’s role in maintaining a democratic society, the committee wrote, was “to encourage initiative, to promote the spirit of free and objective inquiry, to recognize and provide opportunities for unusual interests and aptitudes; in short, to develop men as individuals who will contribute creatively to our society, in this day when strong forces oppose all deviations from set patterns.” Thanks to the committee’s work, the School of Humanities was established, and humanities requirements–and choices–were increased.
“We were inspired by the Lewis report,” says Fitzgerald of the UEC task force. “Since the report, scholarship has become more atomized; people talk less to others beyond their immediate interests. Few people have learned to think big. It’s hard to do.”