The Commons, the Major, and the First Year
A Twenty-First-Century Undergraduate Education
for MIT Students
The report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Commons rests on a vision of the MIT undergraduate education that I believe is shared by all of the faculty: 1) that our students are some of the smartest in the world and deserve to be broadly educated, 2) that we should do what it takes to develop a passion for life-long learning in our students, 3) that there should be a broad and rigorous core educational experience common to all students, and 4) that we should review and renew the content and structure of that core set of requirements from time to time. I believe also that we are all proud of the MIT undergraduate education program; it is one of the best there is. But we must examine the commons, exactly as academic departments examine their programs, in order to insure that we continue to provide the best educational foundation for further study at MIT, as well as for life. And, after all, it has been over 40 years since the Zacharias committee report, the last major review that resulted in sweeping changes of our general requirements in science and math. Except for the introduction of the Biology requirement in the early 1990s, the structure of our educational commons has remained remarkably constant since 1965. We owe it to our students to think deeply about what we need to provide for them to be well-educated leaders in the twenty-first century.
All of this is easy to say, and hard to do. There has been a historic tension between what we hope is provided by the common educational experience (e.g., exposure to a variety of fundamental modes of analysis) and what the departments feel they need from the core (e.g., prerequisite material for subjects in the major).
At one point, the Task Force undertook an exercise where we listed all the foundational subjects in science, math, and engineering, as well as in the humanities, arts, and social sciences that we felt every student should be exposed to. The list we developed would take 3-4 years to complete: no time left for the departmental major!
At the same time, departmental programs are growing larger, straining the boundaries of even the upper limits allowed by faculty regulations. (Indeed, the recent National Academy of Engineering report on the future of engineering undergraduate education suggests that, given the broad range of skills needed by today’s engineers, it may be time for five-year degree programs.). Since we knew we were not in a position to add requirements to the common core, the Task Force proposed a plan that is one model for providing more breadth as well as a base of fundamentals (while introducing more disciplinary, as well as cross-disciplinary areas into the core curriculum). It is now up to faculty to engage with the argument we have laid out and the vision we aspire to. The specific model we propose is a secondary consideration.
As I write this, a number of exciting experimental subjects are being planned in response to the vision of the report. A number of pilot project-based subjects are being offered to first-year students this coming term; a new life sciences subject that is an introduction to neuroscience is being planned, a new computation/algorithmic thinking subject is being developed in EECS, and a number of “freshman experience” HASS subjects are being developed and will be launched beginning in the spring. The Task Force report is a call to all faculty to consider new ways to teach the old material as well as to design new curricula that will lead to a more intellectually satisfying first year and beyond for our students. I have confidence that adding this sort of flexibility and breadth to our core program will improve MIT undergraduate education.
As we said in the report: we live at a time in which citizens steeped in the fundamentals of science and technology will make important contributions to solving the growing array of societal problems. We must educate our students with a breadth of social vision as well as a depth of technical knowledge to take on these problems. MIT plays a special role in this: we are the premier technical university in the world. Others are looking to us for wisdom and guidance. What we do will be noted. I urge the faculty to come together to produce the best education we can for our students.
Robert J. Silbey is Chair of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons.