Rants & Raves
More Than Numbers
When I first arrived at MIT, I went to a few graduate student orientation events to meet my new schoolmates and find out more about what other students at MIT were up to. While many were already too inebriated to speak or understand anything coherently, I did talk to quite a few new faces. The conversations went mostly like this.
“Hi, I’m in Sloan/Course X, what are you?”
“I am studying environmental policy”
“… oh. That’s not engineering, is it? Is it Course 1?”
“No, I’m actually in the planning department.”
“What number is that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you do engineering in undergrad?”
“No, I did geology.”
“Oh, course 12!”
These conversations made marginally more sense to me after I sat down and tried to memorize all of the course numbers and their associated meanings. I still find it odd to identify my academic affiliation by a number rather than a discipline’s name, but that doesn’t really bother me anymore.
What does bother me is the lack of communication and collaboration between the many outstanding disciplines that MIT excels at, and they go far beyond the realm of engineering. I went to a college that valued interdisciplinary education. We were required to take a number of language, humanities, and social science classes in addition to quantitative courses. Of course we all complained about it — the humanities students wondered why they had to take math and the science students didn’t see the point of learning philosophy, but I appreciated the point of those requirements. If you really want your work to be useful and socially relevant, you have to understand the context and at least have an idea of what else is out there.
I know that MIT has an undergraduate humanities requirement, but I also know that many students take economics to satisfy this requirement. Economics, though extremely important, does not exactly cover any of the topics and issues that you generally get from a humanities class. Do we not care about non-quantitative disciplines because we dislike writing papers, or do we really just not care about the subject matter? There seems to be a lot of competition and downright hostility between those who have identified themselves with an academic field. The engineers at my college called the college of arts and science the college of arts and crafts. While they slaved away doing problem sets, I suppose they pictured everyone else finger painting.
Though I must confess that some finger painting may have occurred, I find it alarming that the world of academics has shifted so much towards only rewarding work that produces quantitative and potentially profitable results. I know that institutions need to bring in money and I applaud the desire for academic institutions to provide practical and usable solutions rather than just churn out esoteric work. But it is still important for a well balanced and well educated individual to at least acknowledge the importance of the types of things that humanists study.
After Hurricane Katrina hit, I went to a speech by a prominent English professor who spoke of his frustration at not being able to use his expertise to help the victims. Unlike many of his colleagues, he was not able to conduct research on how mold from flooded homes was affecting homeowners trying to salvage these buildings or work on a ways to effectively drain floodwater out of the city. However, he emphasized that such situations did not mean that humanities were not important. It is imperative that continue to study and analyze the past so we do not forget what has happened in our history. It is important that we continue reading and writing literature that examines the human condition. Humanists study the intangible aspects that make us human. Understanding our motivations, emotions, and beliefs is not a goal to dismiss or look down upon. The importance of this understanding has been highlighted in looking at environmental issues and conflicts. Why do so many seemingly wonderful policies not work out? For one, it is impossible to understand and address every aspect of an issue to generate your desired outcome without creating any problems, but it is also just as impossible to predict the actions and behavior of people. To better understand the potential impacts of climate change, we can run climate models to try to determine climate conditions in the future, but such a program could never predict the actual outcome of climate change.
How will people choose to deal with such a change? How can we motivate individuals to prepare for such a change? What historical precedent do we have for such movements? Engineering solutions can go a long way towards solving global problems, but many other types of expertise are also crucial.
I know MIT is known for its science and engineering work, but there is also amazing work being done here in other fields. Would it really kill us to recognize the importance of disciplines that we aren’t familiar with?