The Commons, the Major, and the First Year
The Challenge of Multidisciplinary Education
Research at MIT has been moving rapidly and definitively towards greater interdisciplinarity. External funding sources routinely ask researchers to assemble interdisciplinary teams. Two initiatives that have received strong internal support—energy and bioengineering – have repeatedly been described as interdisciplinary. This research trend accurately reflects the realities of twenty-first-century civilization. Any sustainable improvement in the human condition now requires an integrated and interactive mix of sciences, engineering, social sciences, and humanities.
In calling for more interdisciplinary education on the undergraduate level, the Task Force report supports two core principles of MIT education. First, excellence in research and education are inseparable. If our research is becoming more interdisciplinary, this should be reflected in our teaching. Second, liberal and professional education should be integrated in the undergraduate years, rather than being sequentially layered into undergraduate and graduate studies. If interdisciplinary approaches are critical in professional life, they should be part of the “learning by doing” in undergraduate education.
The Task Force report suggests two major ways of accomplishing this: a first-year HASS experience program, and a project-based first-year SME experience. While the goal of interdisciplinary experiences for undergraduates may be desirable, these particular mechanisms raise two issues.
One involves timing: the recommendations front-load interdisciplinary education in the first year. Freshmen who have not been exposed to the range of disciplines, and who have not yet begun to acquire a solid disciplinary base, will not be able to participate in rigorous interdisciplinary experiences. Their introduction to interdisciplinary inquiry should not run the risk of superficiality. There are other ways to build student excitement and engagement into the first year.
The second issue is that of over-compartmentalization.
The recommendations of the Task Force separate HASS interdisciplinarity from SME interdisciplinarity, when what our students need are experiences that combines these approaches, as real-world research and practice demand.
The report raises the possibility that the two new first-year requirements might eventually be coordinated, to prompt students to start thinking about “the truly trans-disciplinary context…in which virtually all the important problems facing humankind…are situated.” (p. 31). If that is the case, then this coordination should be encouraged now through new curricular mechanisms. Other suggestions in the report for encouraging more collaboration among schools (pp. 83-5) do not go beyond anything presently available to MIT faculty.
I hope that faculty discussions of the Task Force report will examine these issues of timing and over-compartmentalization to arrive at even more robust proposals for multidisciplinarity experiences. I prefer “multidisciplinary” to “interdisciplinary,” since the latter may imply a sort of hybrid education that displaces rather than builds on disciplines. Disciplines enable humans to address problems in an orderly way. If the unexamined life is not worth living, the undisciplined life cannot be lived effectively. Disciplines discipline.
But students also need to understand how their disciplinary specialty fits with others; where its strengths are, and where its limits are. This is not just a matter of learning how to do “teamwork” in the human factors sense. It is a matter of learning about learning, in the most genuine scholarly sense: learning about the range of approaches to knowledge, their scope, their substance, their relations to practice.
An MIT education should give students a deep understanding of this range so they can practice their disciplines more effectively. Education in the primary discipline benefits when students can relate it to the larger map of learning. MIT should strive for (to mix my metaphors) a Swiss army knife model of education. Each device works well on its own, but each is more effective when bundled together with others, and above all when the operator knows which device to use.
Faculty discussions should seek to create curricular structures that allow deep multidisciplinarity at strategic points through the undergraduate years. To do this, we need a process of experimentation modeled after the goal we are seeking. Proposals should, from the start, include the major disciplinary sets at MIT – science, engineering, humanities, and social sciences. They should be linked to current research efforts at MIT that involve a wide range of approaches, and they should have significant “learning by doing” components. Above all, they should approach multidisciplinarity not as a trend, not as a substitute for disciplinary education, but as an essential goal of university education: introducing students to the universe of learning.