Education for Credit/Education for Progress
Many of our colleagues have labored over the updating and refinement of their course syllabi, over the development of new majors and new fusions of existing majors, and in broader reconsideration of the core curriculum. Our faculty has a long-standing tradition of debates over which subjects should be included in the General Institute Requirements (GIRs). The Science Council will be discussing possible development and implementation of new GIRs such as subjects in statistics/data science/computation. Making room for these additional subjects would mean shrinking the current set of GIRs.
Vice Chancellor Waitz describes a revision in first-year grading policy that grew out of the considerable effort put into a new course for the first-year curriculum. Keeping curricula current and relevant is certainly a continuing core role of our faculty. Financial support for such teaching initiatives is described in the announcement of the annual D’Arbeloff grants.
However, in the past all of these activities operated in a national environment and atmosphere in which progress in science and technology was highly valued, publicized, and recognized as a national priority. This background recognition that scientific and technological advances, thoughtfully and attentively shaped and directed, led to improvements in communication, in the health and welfare of the population, in growth of the economy, and in protection of the environment, made it easier for faculty to focus on student investment and performance in our courses, without necessarily any explicit discussion of values.
The nation has now entered a phase of public life in which the former values have been reversed. The current U.S. administration appoints – with rare exceptions – not only deeply unqualified leaders of government science, energy, and environment programs, but ones with deep conflicts of interest with respect to competing commercial and corporate interests, or even deep animus towards the very programs they have been chosen to lead. All this is clear from the daily news, from our professional journals, from the Marches for Science that brought out tens of thousands of young people.
Prof. Flowers’ article summarizes the need to actually focus on the powers of critical thinking, to refute continuing and perhaps increasing appeals to mysticism, fate, and other anti-science approaches to reality. He calls for bringing this directly into classroom pedagogy.
Prof. Silbey’s article calls for increased concern for ethical and societal aspects of our teaching. Others refer to this as increasing the values content of instruction, as opposed to focusing only on the quality of the pedagogy addressing technical content. Prof. Silbey points out:
“. . . [that] we fail to provide students who will soon be professionals with the tools they will need to recognize the social structures through which individual action is channeled, skills they need to make their way in the world. Should students leave college and professional training believing that their individual will and personal resources are the major opportunities and limits determining success and failure, they will find themselves frustrated when they butt up against those very powerful, yet invisible social structures.”
We suspect many of our colleagues will hunker down to teach their courses, and hope to ride out the storm. But riding out a storm can take great skill and hard work, rather than waiting and watching. We need to consider the dangers of being too passive – of being bystanders – as the educational enterprise we are charged with advancing is buffeted by adverse winds.
This may be a period when classroom teachers need to be proactive, and state clearly to their students that the material they will be mastering is not just a path to acquiring the necessary academic credit, but potentially the path to social and economic progress. Though our style may have been to focus closely on the material, absent editorial comment, in this period we may need to explicitly and publicly protect and promote the social values of education in science and technology.
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Members of the Faculty Newsletter Editorial Board have diverse backgrounds, disciplines, and political outlooks, but we share the belief that the Faculty is a key stakeholder upholding the quality and character of education and research at the Institute. MIT is one of the very few major American universities in which there is neither a Faculty Senate nor a Faculty Union. The one faculty body on the campus that reflects the views of the faculty independently of other influences, is the Editorial Board of the Faculty Newsletter. Nominations come only from the faculty, and only faculty vote. Please do vote when we send out ballots later this fall. We rarely have multiple candidates standing for the slots, but your vote is an affirmation that the faculty values having its own voice.