The Future of the Curriculum

6.1 Introduction

This document outlines the Student Advisory Committee's ideas on some proposed policies to refocus the Institute's curriculum. Not all potentially beneficial policies have been considered here; our nonconsideration of any particular proposal should not be construed as our opinion that nothing need be done. We have concentrated on three particular proposals that were presented in the Discussion Group the Student Advisory Committee held in the fall of 1997, namely:

A Humanities Core

A Minor Program for Doctoral Degrees

Dealing with Pace and Pressure

The committee recommends that the Task Force and the MIT community consider these proposals as decisions on curriculum are made.

6.2 A Humanities Core

A thorough background in general expository writing and oral communication skills is essential to a mastery of communication and will serve our students well in any career. Students should not be allowed to place out of this requirement; rather, advanced activities should be available for students who come to MIT with considerable background in written and oral communication. Once students have mastered the basics of communication, they will be ready to apply this knowledge to communication in their fields; hence, technical subjects should give added emphasis to communication as well.

6.2.1 Communications requirement

The communication requirement can be structured in any number of ways. Possibilities include a stand-alone class, practica attached to current classes, required papers, and increased attention paid to writing in technical classes, as well as other creative possibilities that may be identified later. We think it best to leave the Faculty to decide on the most appropriate implementation. However, we do not recommend that a series of required papers (such as the current preferred method of satisfying Phase I), or relying on technical professors to emphasize writing, will suffice. We believe that a communication requirement should be a positive educational activity in its own right, not a tacked-on hurdle to be overcome before graduation. That is why we recommend that it be treated as part of the Institute's academic core, and that the Faculty should recognize its importance and take responsibility for its implementation.

6.2.2 Ethics

The second branch of the humanities core would teach students ethical values that will be important in their future work. If knowledge is power, then MIT's responsibility as a great institution demands that its graduates use their power of knowledge for good ends. Particularly in an era when technology has given humans unprecedented power to change the face of their world, and when major policy decisions from the environment to the military increasingly require technological sophistication, we believe that MIT must teach students about ethics and their application to real-world decisions.

We feel that students should be encouraged to study and discuss issues in the ethics of science that have arisen in current events and in recent history. Such a program will encourage students to consider the moral and ethical issues of their work, while also providing a grounding in the history of modern scientific and technical advancement. For example, students might study the issues around cloning and genome mapping, weapons of mass destruction, using humans as experimental subjects, global climate change, and whether and how technology improves society's lot, among many others.

The goal of ethics education should be to understand that the pursuit of knowledge is inextricably tied to ethical questions. Students should examine ethical decisions in the past and in current research, and be encouraged to decide for themselves if those decisions were good ones. Students should come away with an expanded awareness of ethics and morality, which should prepare them for scientific and technical work in which those issues will arise. Again, we feel that the Faculty should decide whether ethics education be done as a traditional required class, or in some nontraditional format. However, we recommend that it be considered part of the core education of MIT, for which the entire Faculty has responsibility.

6.2.3 The HASS requirement

We recommend that the current humanities requirement be restructured to ensure that all students receive the introduction they will need to certain humanities fields, while preserving enough flexibility to allow students to explore the humanities. In addition to the core, MIT should retain a HASS distribution requirement to ensure that students are exposed to a cross-section of fields in the humanities. However, subjects used for the distribution requirement should not be disallowed from fulfilling other requirements concurrently with the distribution requirement. The point of the distribution requirement should be to ensure that students take classes in a variety of HASS fields. It should not matter whether these classes simultaneously fulfill other requirements, and prerequisite structures should ensure that students take introductory classes for their distribution subjects.

Finally, MIT should continue to require students to complete additional HASS subjects of their choice, to retain a humanities requirement of at least eight subjects. These two subjects should fulfill the requirement if they are offered in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, or if they appear on list of classes in other schools that are approved for the humanities requirement.

If our core program is implemented as two required humanities subjects, we recognize that this will no longer allow a humanities concentration to fit in the eight required humanities subjects. We believe that such a sacrifice would be justified and more than compensated for by the benefits of our plan. Alternatively, the plan could be implemented less traditionally; this would allow the humanities concentration program to continue, but care should be taken to alleviate student pressure if a new requirement is added.

6.3 A Minor Program for Doctoral Degrees

We recommend that MIT institute a program of minors for doctoral degrees. Too often, doctoral candidates are discouraged from taking subjects outside their departments. In the interest of allowing graduate students an opportunity to take maximum advantage of their time at MIT, the Institute should explicitly allow and encourage them to take classes outside their department. A minor program is an efficient way to accomplish this goal. We expect that, in addition to giving graduate students a way to broaden their continuing education, the minor program should effect a culture change that would leave the Institute more open to a broader graduate curriculum.

A required minor program would force faculty advisors to allow their graduate students to take classes outside the department. If the minor program were optional, it would be necessary to ensure that students are not prevented from taking advantage of it by the same dynamics that prevent them from accessing a broader educational program now. We feel that the student's minor should be noted on the degree, particularly if the program is optional.

Another possibility for broadening the doctoral curriculum would be an Institute-wide core program for doctoral degrees. Such a program might consist of Institute-wide seminars on topics of general interest, or on widely applicable skills such as communication. Areas in which everyone with an advanced degree from MIT should have a grounding are appropriate for inclusion in an Institute-wide core.

6.4 Dealing with Pace and Pressure

By "pace and pressure," we mean to refer to several different dynamics that make the MIT education inordinately difficult for some or all students. These dynamics can range from personal issues, including ineffective time management, to systemic issues, including degree programs that may simply be too ambitious to complete in four years within the framework of a balanced life.

We believe that a relatively high level of pressure is appropriate and beneficial to MIT as a top-notch educational institution. We are not for abandoning the standards of a rigorous academic program. We believe that MIT can and should offer an academic program every bit as successful as the current one and every bit as intellectually stimulating and demanding while lessening to some degree the requirements' bulk in terms of hours required. We reaffirm the central MIT value of hard work, but we nevertheless believe that the academic curriculum is in need of review under the rubric of realistically attainable educational goals.

We believe that MIT's academic program requires too much time to complete satisfactorily. We believe that a satisfactory completion of an MIT program is defined not only be the fulfillment of each of the formal requirements for the degree, but also by the student's comprehension and retention of the material he or she has been taught. While MIT plainly performs quite well for many students, we do not believe that we perform to our potential in this area, and we attribute this in large part to educational goals that prove unrealistic. This does not mean that students should have an easy time, but it does mean that the average student should be able to succeed, in general, by applying himself or herself. Hard work is necessary, but the struggle should not be so central to the student's life as to detract from other important areas, including other classes, physical and mental health, and a modicum of social development.

We identify the following issue areas as contributors to pace and pressure. It is our opinion that they all contribute to the problem, and that action should be taken to remedy all of them. Some are more problematic than others; we recommend that the most significant problem areas be identified through a careful review, and that appropriate action be taken to remedy any problems that may inhere in the Institute's current culture.

  • Some students are not exercising effective time management, making their requirements harder for them to meet. A related problem is that some students unwisely choose to take on too much.

  • Some professors contribute needlessly to student pressure by violating their established standards of conduct. The Rules and Regulations of the Faculty exist in part to ensure that students face reasonable demands and can lead reasonably balanced lives. However, some professors choose to disregard them, causing inordinate additional pressure for their students.

  • Some classes may try to cover too much, so that the top students manage to do well, but those who have a more limited background in the subject, or who are not among MIT's few most bright, encounter trouble.

    MIT may require an excessive number of classes for a four-year degree in some programs; it may be that some programs cover material in sufficient breadth and depth to make more then four years necessary for their satisfactory completion.

  • The General Institute Requirements may not accomplish their objectives with a desirable degree of time efficiency, which may be another reason that an excessive number of subjects may be required for the degree in some programs.

    Pace and pressure is a multifaceted problem, and multiple policies will be necessary to address it. To address the systemic issues of pace and pressure, a thorough Institute-wide review of departmental programs and the General Institute Requirements will be required, along with departmental reviews of each subject offered, to ensure that the subject contains a realistic amount of information. We do not believe that the problem of pace and pressure will be solved without such a review.

    At the same time, there are areas in which immediate action is possible and necessary. We recommend that MIT expand its programs to support students, particularly freshmen, whose time- management skills may be inadequate. We also recommend that the Faculty act to ensure that violations of the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty become significantly less common, perhaps by instituting meaningful penalties for professors with continuing patterns of violation.

    Addressing the issues of pace and pressure will enable students to get the most out of their MIT education. Students will be able to retain more of the material they study, and will be able to concentrate on the material, rather than on the gamesmanship of deciding what assignment should be completed less satisfactorily given the impossibility of doing a good job on all. Far from preventing MIT students from learning as much as they can, addressing pace and pressure will ensure that they do.