Sparking the conversation
A greater intellectual contribution from undergrads is needed
As MIT students, we need to “engage in more public discourse.” Last Tuesday, The Tech’s call for undergraduates to move on from squabbling over student life complications was encouraging. The editorial invited a serious discussion of MIT’s social and political importance. In the coming weeks, complaints about little things on campus will die down. But it remains to be seen whether undergraduates will stand up and begin to participate in the larger debates that will not only shape the Institute, but the world. Let me begin where The Tech left off.
As a freshman interested in political science and the STS major, I came to MIT eager to meet fellow students who were passionate about politics and policy-oriented discussion. Unfortunately, after consciously seeking out these discussions, I have found that many of the students I’ve met during my short time at MIT regard politics with a sense of disillusionment and apathy. Some students intentionally do not follow politics due to an overwhelming disapproval of our national political discourse. I can sympathize — sustained periods of political brinksmanship and partisan bickering can be extremely tedious, especially when definitive actions are not taken. But what troubles me — and is alarmingly prevalent — is the intentional dismissal of politics justified by the notion that, as an MIT student, scientific research should completely dominate one’s focus and efforts.
One of the beauties of MIT is that undergraduates can happily immerse themselves in scientific research for four years and leave the Institute with a degree and a rewarding job. But another beauty of MIT is that most of its students have aspirations to make substantial and positive contributions to society through their work. In order to achieve these aspirations, MIT students must realize that the value of their work should be communicated not only to institutions that support research through grants, but to the general public as well. Developing these critical communication and advocacy skills can and should begin in the undergraduate years.
This development does not need to be governed by the curriculum. Students taking CI-H and CI-HW courses will get a thorough introduction to the process of building effective communication skills. But another effective way to begin exercising these skills is to simply engage fellow undergraduates in serious discussions (or even late-night philosophical meditations, if you’re up to it). Yes, it can be comforting to sit in a room with a few friends and just talk about “nothing,” but one should not hesitate to talk to fellow students about any pressing political, social, or philosophical issues that might be on one’s mind. Why are our own climate science researchers facing such strident opposition from American society? How will our own biologists and computer scientists affect our personal lives by “opening doors for a future of human genetic engineering and modification,” as The Tech put it? Is MIT forging bold pathways toward an energy future less dependent on oil, or are we being impeded by political forces that are unwilling to move away from oil dependency fast enough?
These debates are extremely important, and MIT is a remarkable place to have them. Here, chances are that even if one is talking to a student who is not particularly vocal, that student will have thoughtful insights into many of the questions we need to ask.
This is why I am optimistic. I’m certain that there are other students who will discover the importance of understanding why their own work in science and technology cannot and does not exist in a vacuum. Their work here, and after they leave MIT, will be hugely impacted by politics and economics. My hope is that more MIT students will contribute to an enhanced campus-wide dialogue that ultimately makes the Institute an even more complex, vibrant, and enriching environment. More importantly, they will begin to take responsibility for shaping the national conversations that might otherwise fail to value the importance of the research that they — we — will contribute.
Jacob London is a member of the Class of 2015.