The General Institute Requirements (GIRs)
The Changing Nature of "Fundamental"
In the course of our investigations, the Task Force received detailed presentations from faculty currently teaching the GIR science courses, people clearly among MIT’s most dedicated and skilled teachers. We asked each of them: “Why is this course important for MIT students?’’ Here are their replies (in paraphrase): “Chemistry is a unique, coherent way of thinking about the physical world. It is important for students to learn how chemists think.” “Biology is so important today, from basic science to public policy to healthcare decisions, that no matter what students end up majoring in they will need to know some biology to be informed scientists, engineers, and citizens.” Physics faculty replied “electricity and magnetism are so fundamental that every student should learn them in order to move on to further study in the sciences or engineering,” or they stated “Maxwell’s equations are philosophically important and represent an ideal union of mathematics and physics that characterizes the sciences.” (We also learned that we as a faculty do a poor job of communicating these rationales to the first-year students).
What is striking about these rationales is their diversity, a diversity we should celebrate. Surely other instructors of the same subjects find them essential for yet additional reasons. But these multiple perspectives belie the assertion that the “fundamentals” are obvious, predetermined, somehow inherent in the structure of knowledge and uniquely necessary for advancement in a scientific or technical education. Over time, the nature of these fundamentals can change, and they should change (as they did in 1964, or in 1994 with the addition of biology). Might there be other rigorous pedagogical explorations of the sciences that would provide similar fundamentals for MIT students? The Task Force report does not specify what those might be, but merely stipulates they are conceivable and leaves it to the faculty to propose them. Are there no scientists at MIT (or engineers for that matter) who might propose a course for freshmen that epitomizes the union of mathematics and the physical world?
The Task Force was also clear that the GIRs, in addition to their prescriptive role, represent a statement by the faculty to the students about what is intellectually important.
Unfortunately, the way the Task Force conducted its business (with separate consideration of the science core and HASS requirements), the way the current report is written, and the changes it proposes underscore the old “two-cultures” divide between science/engineering and the humanities and social sciences.
Of course opportunities exist today for faculty members to teach collaborative interdisciplinary subjects, as many faculty do. But the structure proposed in the Task Force report lacks a compelling vision for collaboration across the “two cultures” divide. Hence it lacks a clear statement to our students that the Institute and the faculty value such syntheses. As the faculty considers and debates revisions to the GIRs in the coming months, I urge us to consider structures that make such a statement. The “project-based” requirement makes some progress in this regard, but interdisciplinary teaching across the two cultures may or may not be project based, and should not be limited to that category. Moreover, there is no overlap between such “project-based” experiences in SME and the “freshman experiences” in SHASS.
Finally, as I said in one of last fall’s faculty meetings, in all the debate about changes to the GIRs we should not blind ourselves to the smaller recommendations in the Task Force report that could be implemented quickly, with broad consensus, and at relatively small cost. Chief among these is the recommendation to change the “double degree” requirement to a “double major” (p. 107). This change will strongly encourage students who have deep interests in two departments to pursue two majors simultaneously. The Task Force was unanimous in supporting this idea, having heard no objections to making the change (if such objections do arise they clearly need to be addressed). But with the stroke of a pen (or a vote of the faculty) this change would radically increase the ability of MIT undergraduates to master multiple disciplines in a rigorous way. I urge the faculty to take up this question this spring, and to implement this simple measure as a welcome, satisfying sign of progress. No other Task Force recommendation would energize so many students in such a short time.