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My View: Picturing a New Undergraduate Education

Could an approach that focuses on common thinking processes better prepare MIT students?

Since 1967, i’ve been thinking about thinking. my interest stemmed from two electives I took during my senior year: Hans-Lukas Teuber’s Introduction to Psychology and Judith Thomson’s Philosophy of Mind. Both left a lasting impression on me. In recent years, I’ve been thinking about what the most effective curriculum for undergraduate education at MIT might be. There has been limited discussion in this area, and since the Institute is in the process of examining the General Institute Requirements (GIRs) to see whether they provide the best foundation for current students (see “Examining the Basics,” MIT News, September 2004), now seems an appropriate time to stoke that debate.

I think of my education in pictures. If you were to draw a picture of your MIT education, what would it look like? Good question, you think, and thinking in pictures is a characteristic of many autistic-spectrum MIT students. Perhaps you would draw a fountain of knowledge that looks like an inverted Great Dome, overflowing with 5.01, 8.02, 18.034, and 21.05 icons, with Infinite Corridor–shaped fire hoses protruding from it like Medusa’s snake-hair, aimed at the mouths of thirsting Tech Tools. Then you might place this writhing monster into a frying pan and label the whole image “This is your brain on GIRs.”

Figure A represents how I see my general undergraduate education at MIT. It shows a static range of subject matter, and the shading density represents my relative exposure to those fields of study. While I was exposed to certain basics in science and engineering, I was shielded from a considerable fraction of higher education. That may have worked in the mid-1960s but fails to meet the multidisciplinary, multicultural needs of students entering today’s global work force and research laboratories.

So what does every MIT graduate really need to know, not for the final, but for life? Suppose that, with a lot of effort (and surely not without some controversy), every department could distill its discipline into the basic principles and fundamental knowledge students must have, thus producing a dense core of subject matter that matters (figure B).

Now, let’s look at that drawing from another angle, rotated 90 degrees. What might we see? Figure C shows transverse fibers, common tools that I believe would enable students to master any subject matter. These include thinking processes such as conceptualization, imagination, estimation, pattern recognition, speculation, analysis, synthesis, planning, induction, deduction, and multitasking.

If we interweave the thinking processes and the subject matter, as shown in figure D, we end up with a thinking/matter model of education, suitable for designing a liberal science and engineering education, a more appropriate undergraduate education for the future. The goal of such an education would be to create a framework within which future learning can take place—a bare structure to be fleshed out by each student over time. This model should expose students to the breadth of courses at the Institute and also provide them with an introduction to all of its majors. It should develop finely honed thinking skills that students would apply across all disciplines. By focusing on common principles and concepts, students would discover the connections among disciplines, which would result in a genuine multidisciplinary, multicultural education.

It is also fitting to consider the desirability of relating the software to the machine. Just as programmers intentionally design software for optimal performance on targeted hardware, so should education be intentionally designed for optimal performance on the brain.

Here are some assumptions that indicate a liberal science and engineering undergraduate education makes sense: (1) Following graduation, students are more likely to remember general principles than specific details. (2) Most will go on to graduate school and can readily accomplish the necessary mastery of specialized material there without having begun to do so as undergraduates. (3) Many will shift specializations or change careers and will not continue to apply the same subset of mastered subject matter throughout their lives. (4) MIT graduates are quite capable of learning what they need to know, when they need to know it. (5) They are valued by society as much for their wide-ranging ability to think as for their highly focused expertise. (6) Knowledge is expanding at a rate that exceeds our ability to master it. Effective use of superarchives, such as DSpace and OCW, will supplant the need to “know things.” In the future, we will just look them up on the Web or put out an inquiry on a listserv; indeed, this is already happening.

So what is an MIT education? The title of Pepper White’s 1991 book captures it quite nicely, I think: The Idea Factory: Learning to Think at MIT. What do you think?

To reply to this column, e-mail, or write to MIT News, Technology Review, One Main Street, 7th floor, Cambridge MA 02142.

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