Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

  • Simon Simard
  • A frank examination of MIT’s past

    When new data disrupts our old assumptions, it’s up to us to make a better model.

    One afternoon last December, a group of undergraduates told me a story I had never heard before: the story, gradually being revealed by their original research, of the links between MIT, the legacy of slavery, and the process of rebuilding after the Civil War.

    The moment was inspiring for several reasons. First, it’s always a thrill to see our students dig into a compelling topic that’s new to them. The class they were enrolled in, MIT and Slavery, was designed by Professor Craig Wilder and archivist Nora Murphy to meet in the Institute Archives, so it could focus on primary sources from MIT’s own history. As you would expect, our students brought to the challenge of excavating our history all the drive for discovery and problem-solving that you would find in an MIT lab. They were, in the best MIT tradition, learning by doing.

    Second, as they presented a range of new facts about our institutional past, I watched them learning something crucial about history itself: that it is not a static set of assumptions but, rather, a model of reality that we use to understand the world. Just as in any scientific field, when new data disrupts our old assumptions, it’s up to us to make a better model. In effect, the students are using the bricks of their new knowledge to build a story of MIT that’s more complete, one that will help us better understand our place in history—the history of science and engineering, of American higher education, of New England, and of the nation.

    This story is part of the May/June 2018 Issue of the MIT News magazine
    See the rest of the issue
    Subscribe

    Finally, I was struck by the students’ wisdom in understanding that technology is rooted in society; this also came through clearly at our community gathering in February, where they shared their initial findings.

    We need not be trapped or burdened by our history. But I do believe that if we can look at it frankly, from our best moments to our worst, we have a much better chance of approaching the present and the future with humility and self-awareness. And that can only help us as we seek to make a better world for all.

    Cut off? Read unlimited articles today.

    Become an Insider
    Already an Insider? Log in.
    Next in MIT News
    Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to MIT Technology Review.
    • Print + All Access Digital {! insider.prices.print_digital !}* Best Value

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      The best of MIT Technology Review in print and online, plus unlimited access to our online archive, an ad-free web experience, discounts to MIT Technology Review events, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

      See details+

      12-month subscription

      Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

      6 bi-monthly issues of print + digital magazine

      10% discount to MIT Technology Review events

      Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

      Ad-free website experience

      The Download: newsletter delivered daily

    • All Access Digital {! insider.prices.digital !}*

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      The digital magazine, plus unlimited site access, our online archive, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

      See details+

      12-month subscription

      Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

      Digital magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

      Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

      The Download: newsletter delivered daily

    • Print Subscription {! insider.prices.print_only !}*

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      Six print issues per year plus The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

      See details+

      12-month subscription

      Print magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

      The Download: newsletter delivered daily

    /3
    You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.

    MIT News = for alumni only.

    Are you an MIT alum?
    Sign in now to read all MIT alumni news and class notes— or to manage your magazine subscription.

    Sign in and read on