MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
Grappling with Change
Overview of the Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Introduction to this Special Issue
Will the Task Force HASS Recommendations Increase Student Apathy?
A "Nerd Track" for MIT?
Reasons to Continue to Require 8.02
Diversity in Foundational Skills
and Knowledge
"Big Ideas" and the High School Asymmetry
More Science, Not Less
Recognizing the First Rate
Five-Out-Of-Six Model is Not Viable for MechE, but Five-Out-Of-Five Model Is
The Changing Nature of "Fundamental"
AP Credit for 8.01 is Appropriate
Arguments for Five-Out-Of-Five
The Case for a Shared Freshman
Knowledge Base
Educating Leaders for a Complex World
Toward a Liberal Scientific and
Technological Education
A Serious Equivocation:
The Issue of Foreign Language Study
Select Data Considered by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Select Data Considered by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
The General Institute Requirements (GIRs)
Printable Version

The General Institute Requirements (GIRs)

"Big Ideas" and the High School Asymmetry

Sally Haslanger and David Pesetsky

We are writing to express our concern about the changes in the structure of the HASS requirement proposed in the Task Force report. Our concern focuses on the "foundational phase" that would mandate the creation of a small set of First-Year Experience subjects and so-called Foundational Electives that must be entirely new and satisfy a stringent set of criteria. Thus, the First-Year electives must stress "'big ideas' concerning culture and society that have endured over time" and the Foundational Electives (despite their name) must not be "narrow introductions to particular disciplines" or "retreaded HASS-D subjects."

We have no quarrel with foundational courses and "big ideas," but we fear that the proposed plan will actually restrict students' access to many big ideas by denying them necessary foundations for discussing them. In particular, we believe that the "foundational phase" as sketched in the Task Force report will limit students' abilities to explore HASS fields that they did not already explore in high school. Many of them will never discover a wealth of interesting connections among HASS fields and between HASS and MIT's science and engineering offerings – connections that the current HASS curriculum does enable students to discover. Consequently, we think the proposed reforms are a step in the wrong direction. Despite flying the flag of "breadth and diversity," the proposal will lead to a serious narrowing of the HASS experience at MIT.

As is well known, many of the most important developments in the study of "what makes us human" began here at MIT, often in SHASS departments. The Institute even now boasts a special continuum of activity and investigation that runs from the creative and performing arts through the analytic study of the arts and history, and into the social and cognitive sciences, including linguistics and philosophy, that study the structure of human mental activity and action. The social and cognitive fields within SHASS are, in turn, the intellectual neighbors of many non-SHASS fields at MIT – the brain sciences, for example, as well as computer science and fields represented in HST. Consequently, MIT should be the absolutely best place in the world for an undergraduate to study human nature and human experience from almost every perspective. But there's a catch.

The continuum from HASS to the rest of the Institute might be obvious to us, but it is certainly not obvious to entering undergraduates. The reason is simple: asymmetries in the typical high-school curriculum.

Almost all high schools train students intensively in a few HASS fields (history, literature, and a foreign language) and require classes in at least one creative or performing art. The other HASS fields, however, are almost entirely missing from the high-school curriculum. The asymmetry is systematic. Our entering students are unlikely to have much prior knowledge of any of the cognitive/social areas of HASS (including our fields, linguistics and philosophy), but have spent many years studying the cultural/creative areas. Consequently, most students come to MIT ignorant or even unaware of disciplines that provide important links between the other HASS fields and the sciences. How can they see a continuum if large parts of it are absent from their experience?

This "high-school asymmetry" lies at the heart of our concerns. The Task Force's HASS recommendations presuppose that subjects for students in their first semesters should focus on "'big ideas' concerning culture and society that have endured over time" rather than on "fundamental methods of scholarship and areas of knowledge." But to meaningfully address most "big ideas," students must first acquire the intellectual tools and factual knowledge relevant to the questions addressed by these ideas. In HASS fields where this does not take place in high school, the Task Force recommendation is putting the cart before the horse.

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Of course the cognitive/social fields do teach "big ideas about culture and society" too. For example, MIT's introductory linguistics course (24.900, a HASS-D) often ends with a discussion of dialect variation, with a particular focus on African-American English. The students listen to a rant delivered by Bill Cosby to an NAACP meeting, in which he mocks African-American English and derides it as "crap coming out of your mouth." We then examine the actual facts of the dialect. Students discover that the object of Cosby's derision is in fact a law-governed linguistic system just like any other. It has a sound system, sentence structure, and lexicon whose properties are just like the properties of all the languages that the students have just spent three months studying – through problem sets, reading, and essay writing. The striking contrast between the stigmatization of this dialect and its formal status as a language just like any other leads to discussion of important general questions about language and society. These are exactly the kinds of broad questions that should be welcome in foundational-phase HASS courses, but because of the high-school asymmetry, students cannot meaningfully address them until they have learned the basics of a discipline first. That is why "language and society" is a topic for the end of the semester, not the beginning.

We suspect, in fact, that almost all current HASS-D subjects address "big ideas.” The Task Force report, however, by insisting that the replacements for the HASS-D requirement not be "retreaded HASS-D subjects" or "narrow introductions to particular disciplines" effectively removes from the introductory curriculum those subjects whose "big ideas" are deeply bound up with a disciplinary background not provided in high school.

Many students, for example, encounter philosophy for the first time in the HASS-D subjects “Justice” and “Minds and Machines.” Justice and thought are “big ideas,” but a course that properly engages them can hardly avoid being an introduction to political philosophy or philosophy of mind, respectively. Take these subjects out of the first-year curriculum and many students will never learn what they have to offer. Worse, suppose we do figure out a way to "retread" these classes as First-Year Experience offerings. We then face a different problem. First-Year Experience classes are for freshmen only. How, then, would students gain access to this material after their first year? Will we have to devise a second set of introductory courses in political philosophy and philosophy of mind? These would be not only redundant, but would stretch our tiny faculty too thin.

We think it should be possible for a freshman or sophomore to enter fields like ours in fulfillment of the pre-concentration HASS requirement, if only because of the place that such fields occupy in the continuum of topics that link the SHASS fields to the rest of MIT. "Big ideas" classes are great, but so is the discovery that there is a whole intellectual world waiting to be explored in fields that a student never met before. Encountering unexpected topics of interest is, after all, one of the joys of learning. We think it is one of the jobs of a great institution to provide not only a structured curriculum but also adequate time and space for such serendipitous encounters. It is easy to denigrate the current HASS curriculum as an "an incoherent academic arcade," as the report does, but one should not forget that people do win prizes in arcades, and that the best education is not necessarily a tightly managed education.

Sally Haslanger is the Undergraduate Officer for the Department of Philosophy; David Pesetsky is the Undergraduate Officer for the Department of Linguistics.

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