Replanting Our Social and Emotional Landscape
To The Faculty Newsletter:
Professor Eltahir’s warning in the November/December 2015 Faculty Newsletter (“In Guarding the Well-Being of MIT Students We Should Emphasize Prevention”) is both compelling and deeply distressing. Noting his research in Civil and Environmental Engineering centers on deforestation, desertification, and climate change makes me think that perhaps the Institute community – along with our culture at large – suffers from emotional desertification.
Social-emotional learning is now a hot topic in elementary schools. In the Boston Globe (1/6/16 bit.ly/1Z58BNy), James Vaznis reported that “teaching students at every grade to manage their emotions can help them deal with a multitude of serious issues, including bullying, mental illness, substance abuse, or trauma.”
A comment on that article echoes Professor Eltahir’s sad conclusions about MIT. According to Jerome J. Schultz, a clinical neuropsychologist and lecturer on psychology at Harvard Medical School, the “learning environment itself is a major source of stress [and] an under-recognized cause of the epidemic increase of childhood anxiety and depression. Kids are the canaries in a coalmine that we’ve dug for them.”
Can we replant our social and emotional landscape? Can we more explicitly recognize that work is hardly the only dimension of our lives nor is it the sole measure of success in life. I believe that we need nothing less than a fundamental, community-wide broadening of both dialogue and behavior to re-prioritize life balance in all segments of the Institute family. Certainly the Institute Community and Equity Office and MIT Medical can both serve as cornerstones of this effort, but they cannot do the whole job.
Another laudable effort addressing the Institute’s role in both causing and countering the pervasive and deep-rooted malaise in community members is Portraits of Resilience, a series published by The Tech with support from the UA’s Committee on Student Support and Wellness. Prof. Daniel Jackson created the Resilience Project in response to MIT’s recent tragic suicide cluster, including the suicide of a long-time colleague. The project recognizes that “the pressures and frustrations of the MIT experience are severe” but through it Prof. Jackson has found “extraordinary insights and thoughtfulness among students” and he wants to see these strengths shared.
How can MIT integrate the various efforts in this domain? In his column on Faculty Committees in the January/February 2016 Faculty Newsletter, Faculty Chair Krishna Rajagopal mentions the Committee on Student Life, saying that “the best time to discuss it will be after it has begun working with our future Vice President for Student Life.” I very much hope that this administrator, with new energy and focus, will be equal to the task.
We owe our students not only rigorous and rewarding academic challenges. We must help them prepare for full and rewarding lives.
Eve Odiorne Sullivan