At MIT — a bastion of STEM education — we view the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences as essential — both for educating great engineers, scientists, scholars, and citizens, and for sustaining our capacity for innovation.
The role of the humanities has been the subject of much recent debate amid concerns that the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) are eclipsing the humanities fields, in terms of relevance and career prospects.
So some may be surprised, and, we hope, reassured, to learn that here at MIT — a bastion of STEM education — we view the humanities, arts, and social sciences as essential, both for educating great engineers, scientists, scholars, and citizens, and for sustaining the Institute’s capacity for innovation.
Why? Because the Institute’s mission is to advance knowledge and educate students who are prepared to help solve the world’s most challenging problems – in energy, health care, transportation, and dozens of other fields. To do this, our graduates naturally need advanced technical knowledge and skills — the deep, original thinking about the physical universe that is the genius of the science and engineering fields.
But the world’s problems are never tidily confined to the laboratory, workbench, or spreadsheet. From climate change to poverty to disease, the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale; and engineering and science issues are always embedded in broader human realities, from deeply-felt cultural traditions to building codes to political tensions. So our students also need an in-depth understanding of human complexities — the political, cultural, and economic realities that shape our existence — as well as fluency in the powerful forms of thinking and creativity cultivated by the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
MIT’s curriculum has evolved significantly over the past fifty years to require all undergraduates to spend substantial time on subjects like literature, languages, economics, music, and history. In fact, every MIT undergraduate takes a minimum of eight such classes — nearly 25% of their total class time.
In these classes, our students learn how individuals, organizations, and nations act on their desires and concerns. They gain historical perspectives, critical thinking skills, cultural understandings that help them collaborate with people across the globe, as well as communication skills that enable them to listen, explain, and inspire. They learn that most human situations defy a single correct answer, that life itself is rarely, if ever, as precise as a math problem, as clear as an elegant equation.
"From climate change to poverty to disease, the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale; and engineering and science issues are always embedded in broader human realities, from deeply-felt cultural traditions to building codes to political tensions."
Some of the best testimony about the value of such an education comes from our science and engineering alumni. One recent graduate who went on to medical school wrote about how her practice as a physician requires not only medical knowledge, but also the ability to interpret her patients’ accounts and stories — a skill she gained reading literature, studying the various forms of narrative, the many ways humans share vital information. “MIT biology prepared me for medicine,” she says. “Literature prepared me to be a doctor.”
Entrepreneurs also find a diverse skill set very valuable. One distinguished MIT engineering graduate and entrepreneur notes, “The introduction to philosophy and the history of ideas turned out to be the most enduring value and benefit from my education at MIT.” Another engineering graduate who has transformed the electronics field states, “A broader education for a young person is more important than a specialty. When you learn about several disciplines, then you can start to connect them. I found my economics and history classes particularly useful.”
A prominent MIT materials scientist graduate, who cites her MIT literature and art history classes as key to expanding her worldview, is now the Dean of a College of Engineering, with a frontline perspective on what engineers need to succeed in today’s marketplace. She says, “Employers want students who can lead, work in teams, work across cultures, and especially communicate — and much of that ability comes from studies in literature, the arts, the social sciences. The world needs creative problem-solvers who can take into account the human perspective.”
"Some of the best testimony about the value of a full-spectrum education comes from our science and engineering alumni. One distinguished MIT engineering graduate and entrepreneur notes, 'The introduction to philosophy and the history of ideas turned out to be the most enduring value and benefit from my education at MIT.'"
As educators, we know we cannot anticipate all the forms our students’ future challenges will take, but we can provide them with some fundamentals that will be guides for the ongoing process of exploration and discovery. We can help shape their resilience, and prepare them to analyze and problem-solve in both familiar and unfamiliar situations. Calling on both STEM and humanities disciplines — as mutually informing modes of knowledge — we aim to give students a toolbox brimming over with mental and experiential levers to support them throughout their careers and lives.
Whatever our calling, whether we are scientists, engineers, poets, public servants, or parents, we all live in a complex, and ever-changing world, and all of us deserve the fundamentals in this toolbox: critical thinking skills; knowledge of the past and other cultures; an ability to work with and interpret numbers and statistics; access to the insights of great writers and artists; a willingness to experiment, to open up to change; and the ability to navigate ambiguity.
If we agree that the whole continuum of knowledge is needed to wrangle the world’s challenges — and to appreciate its glories — how do we respond to the perception that the humanities are becoming less valuable for success in American life?
For starters, we could pay more attention to the counter narratives in the workplace. In a memorable speech, for example, Marissa Mayer, then vice-president at Google, noted that “We are going through a period of unbelievable growth and will be hiring about 6,000 people this year — and probably 4,000-5,000 from the humanities.” Developing user interfaces, she explained, is as much about knowing how to observe and understand people as about pure technological skill.
"What might we see in a new era of humanities education? To begin, we might conceptualize colleges and universities as laboratories for experimentation."
We can also certainly try some different approaches in our classrooms. Although there are few greater privileges than being in a small seminar class with others who are passionate about the French Revolution, musicology, or the novels of Zora Neale Hurston, the seminar format is only one way to teach the humanities. Alternative approaches have the potential to reach and engage many more students.
What might we see in a new era of humanities education? To begin, we might conceptualize colleges and universities less as museums, where professors serve as stewards of knowledge, and more as laboratories for experimentation. In that climate, we might develop more hands-on humanities learning experiences; more project-based courses; and more opportunities for the discoveries that come from collaborating on teams.
We could create many more humanities internships, in the U.S. and abroad, to immerse students in projects that make a positive impact in the world. We could collaborate more with colleagues across the curriculum, and with partners in our local communities. We might join with local libraries to organize town-reading events that bring together scholars and community members to tackle transformative but daunting books, like The Origin of Species or The Wealth of Nations. And, of course, we can seize the potentials of online learning platforms and the use of digital technologies to strengthen research and education in humanities.
The stakes are high these days — for individuals, societies, for the planet itself. The times are calling us to quicken and share the world of ideas, history, and literature — with all who yearn for more expertise, creativity, and meaning. And, the more we can re-invigorate education in alliance with our STEM colleagues, the better. For while we as educators may, for good and practical reasons, divide the spectrum of knowledge into various categories, the mind itself is the original polymath — drawing on diverse, and often surprising, sources as it goes about the wondrous work of making fresh connections, and laying down new pathways for thought, discernment, and action.
Mission | MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Fields of Study | MIT Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Gallery | 21st Century Humanities at MIT
The Heart of the Matter | Report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
National Humanities Center
Extended commentary based on an Op-Ed
by MIT historian Deborah Fitzgerald in The Boston Globe, April 30, 2014
Fitzgerald served as the Dean of MIT SHASS from 2007-2015.