The Commons, the Major, and the First Year
On the Pursuit of Beauty at MIT
I wish I knew the actual statistic, but I find that most MIT undergrads are musically gifted. If not, they’re usually visually gifted, or else great dancers, actors, writers, or even jugglers. But for all the natural creativity they bring to MIT, their expressive skills matter little when it comes to their classes. Because they come to MIT not to become great artists, but to become great scientists and engineers.
Nature’s engineer, the MIT mascot of the beaver, has little care for the feng-shui or aesthetics of her dam as long as it functions flawlessly as a home. At MIT we educate a similar core sensibility for practicality and perfection, and do little to encourage the wild insensibilities associated with the latest irresponsible hack on the Dome. What if an MIT student were to hack their problem set with the same irrational drive of Warhol or Picasso? The answer is simple. He can’t. Because classical problem sets usually deal with a journey towards what is “correct” for-all-time, versus problems in the arts which can sometimes be resolved as “kind of correct” if you’re lucky, and even when you’re incorrect you might be 100% spot on.
As a product of MIT’s undergraduate education system, I can proudly say that I am glad to have learned the GIRs through stepping on the hot coals of 8.02, surviving 18.02 and so forth to strengthen my brain. And I’m even more grateful for the early experiences I had in humanistic learning at MIT which shaped not only my brain, but my heart.
From speaking with fellow MIT alumni, I know that there’s an incredible desire to engage more undergraduates in the pursuit of a balanced learning experience that spans more than just the Berlin Wall that separates science and engineering. For the “non-MIT” aspects of an MIT education are often useful when a student has left to face the final intellectual hurdle that comes with no proper course number: the big hairy problem set called “Life.” There’s absolutely no clever Walter Lewin or Gil Strang educational video on this subject that can lead them to salvation.
Pondering the non-scientific aspects of life, our daily existence, the pursuit of beauty, experiencing a song – these seemingly frivolous activities achieve little short-term utility. However they provide meaning to the greater context of a life to be lived past the age of 22. Today countless MIT graduates are emerging as leaders in all aspects of the art and creative world due to the fact that technology pervades everyday life. MIT students know how to make technology, and they know how to wonderfully break technology. Programs like Adobe Photoshop limit creative freedom to the source code from which images are borne, and it is 6.001-powered minds that can empower new and as yet unseen visual discoveries. Beyond just the arts, consider the potential reach of the MIT-incubated “One Laptop Per Child” initiative that will put an advanced computer in the hands of millions of underprivileged children. The average MIT undergrad has within her reach the ability to use her technology-centered education to deeply impact minds, hearts, bodies, and souls like never before.
In this new century, MIT has the unique opportunity to use their good ole “E to the U du dx” charm to make, as former President Vest once put it, “Engineering as the humanities of the twenty-first century.” This is unlikely to happen with a business-as-usual approach to an MIT education, and I am optimistic that the next evolved step of the GIRs will gradually get us there. Because I now see a slew of MIT alums from Course II, III, VI, and VIII, to name a few, showing at prestigious venues from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Centre Pompidou in Paris as leaders of culture and distinction. An MIT education that prizes students’ creative skills and gives them more tools to be able to “hack” their future life will broaden MIT’s leadership beyond making great scientists and engineers, to inventing great artists and designers as well. Then perhaps our world can ultimately solve the biggest problem set of them all … without even pulling an all-nighter!