From The Faculty Chair
Introduction to this Special Issue
This special issue of the Faculty Newsletter reflects the best thinking of many of our colleagues who care deeply about the quality of the education we provide to our undergraduate students. The depth and breadth of the submissions to this special issue are perhaps the clearest indicators of how deeply we as a faculty care about undergraduate education and how seriously we take both its substance and the process of changing it.
The passion that we bring to the debate about undergraduate education shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows MIT well. We have always taken the enterprise of educating the future leaders of society as a central element of our university’s mission. We have also always recognized that an MIT education must provide not only a superb technical education, but also the foundation for our students’ participation as citizens of an ever-more complicated world.
The work of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons is part of our long history of periodically re-examining the part of our students’ learning experiences that we as a faculty believe all of them should share. I urge everyone involved in the faculty’s deliberations about the educational commons to consider the various points of view of our colleagues that are in this special issue and to engage in the ongoing discussions about the framework that the Task Force has proposed.
In reading the articles in this special issue, I also urge all of us to remember that the work of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons was motivated by important ideas that most of us support. Most importantly, the recommendations of the Task Force are founded on the premise that the education we provide our students isn’t about filling their minds with a fixed body of knowledge. Rather, an MIT education must kindle and sustain a passion for lifelong learning.
It is important to understand that the Task Force’s recommendations are more of a flexible template than a rigid formula for our undergraduate curriculum.
For example, whether we ultimately include five courses from six categories in the Science / Mathematics / Engineering requirement or adopt the alternative model that requires five courses from five categories is still unresolved. The precise definition of each of the categories and what courses might go into each of them needs to be decided. Also undetermined is the number of specific courses in the categories that any department can mandate for its majors.
Much of the discussion at recent faculty meetings has focused on the Science / Mathematics / Engineering requirements. However, the Task Force’s recommendations with respect to our requirements in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences also require our careful attention. The idea of a more coherent structure to our freshmen’s first year experience in HASS opens up many opportunities for creative thinking about new courses that have broad appeal and that allow for more of a shared experience in these fields. This would create an educational experience in HASS courses that more closely parallels what our students now get in their science courses.
The Task Force also has highlighted the importance of giving our undergraduates the opportunity for meaningful international experiences as part of their education. Our students will live and work in a world where science and commerce happen globally rather than nationally. Being leaders in this future will require that they understand different cultural norms and that they be comfortable working in diverse settings.
Other Task Force recommendations include improvements in areas such as advising, class scheduling, integrating an understanding of diversity into our curricula, shifting from double degrees to double majors, educational innovation and assessment, classroom facilities and the teaching of leadership skills. We need to move forward on as many of these as we can by working collaboratively with the senior administration and raising the funds needed.
Over the coming months we will need to integrate the ideas and comments about the undergraduate educational commons into specific recommendations that will require a vote of the faculty. The Committee on the Undergraduate Program will develop concrete proposals for changes and will continue the process of getting input from various faculty groups as they try to reconcile the diverse views of educational changes that arise from their consultations. It is important to note that no changes in our degree requirements will be made until the faculty approves them.
As I wrote in my column in the September/October 2006 issue of the Faculty Newsletter, our decisions about the education of our students are at the core of faculty governance. We owe our students the best education we can give them.