Opinion guest column

An excerpt from a student’s reflection on the technical education

‘We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge: and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves,—how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves?’ ~Friedrich Nietzsche

In February, I attended a discussion with Chancellor Barnhart regarding the future of the MIT education. Our guiding questions: What bold experiments in education should MIT pursue? What should a college education entail? I was prompted by the discussion to reflect on the character of the education I have received. Intent on understanding the most fundamental aspects of nature, I came to MIT seeking an education in physics. I will certainly leave knowing much more physics than when I arrived. However, I have received, or more accurately, stumbled into a second education — one that I did not seek because I was not aware I needed it. I now believe this second education, which I will call my “human education,” is significantly more important than my technical one, and moreover, that it has benefited me in a deeper and more serious way.  My motive for writing, then, is to clarify what I mean by this human education and to explain why it is particularly necessary at MIT. I hope my peculiar experience may help others address the questions Chancellor Barnhart posed.

What exactly do I mean by a “human education”?  An inquiry, I think, is best characterized by its guiding question, by what it seeks to know. Above all, this education focuses on the question: What is the good life for human beings? It asks, what kind of life best addresses our true needs?  And it seeks to understand those needs by investigating our true opinions and concerns. There are two principal differences between a human and technical education that are worth elaborating here. 

A human education is not obviously objective in the same way a technical education seems to be. The inquiry into human questions is not, and cannot be, objective because we cannot approach these questions in a disinterested manner. We, as human beings, necessarily live in light of answers to the big questions. We could not function if we truly believed we did not know, for example, what would make us happy, or what the right thing to do was. Wrapped up in every important decision we make are opinions about human happiness, about right and wrong, and about what it means to be an impressive and admirable human being. In short, we live according to certain moral and political opinions.  Because we have lived our lives up to this point on the basis of these opinions, it is exceedingly difficult to question them. Our opinions get buried deep within our souls. On the basis of my own experience and observations, I assert: Our situation as students is such that we are ignorant of ourselves. We do not really attempt to articulate our opinions nor are we certain that they are coherent or consistent. Thus, a true human inquiry must be self-reflective. We must look inward. If we were to take a human education seriously, we would begin from our ordinary moral and political opinions because we fear holding unexamined, and therefore potentially confused, opinions. To quote the famous 20th century political thinker Isaiah Berlin: “To neglect the field of political thought, because its unstable subject-matter, with its blurred edges, is not to be caught by fixed concepts, abstract models, and fine instruments…is merely to allow oneself to remain at the mercy of primitive and uncriticized political beliefs.” To put it bluntly: the risk of neglecting the political is enslavement to unexamined opinion.

An analysis of this sort — which claims that we are ignorant of ourselves, and worse, not even aware of our own ignorance — cannot in itself be persuasive. If I had read the above paragraph when I was in high school I probably would have laughed.  It is difficult to take seriously the possibility of one's own ignorance.  I can speak only to my own experience: I have first-hand knowledge of how terrifyingly easy it is to hold wildly contradictory opinions, defend them vehemently, and act in a way that is completely contradictory to what one claims to believe in speech. But I have come to believe that our self-ignorance is not final — that there is a way to rectify our sorry state: the human education, which focuses not on the external, but on one’s own soul. 

The second difference between the human and the technical education is that the two are concerned with different kinds of questions.  Scientific or technological questions — the kind MIT students are used to — are questions of means, whereas the moral and political questions are questions of ends. 

We all say that science is morally neutral, that it deals with facts and not values.  We say science does not address questions like, “Should I build a nuclear bomb for Hitler?” (a question the German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his colleagues faced during World War II). One need look no further than the Farm Hall Transcripts to see that not all intelligent people hold the same values or believe in the same ends. I do not believe I am saying anything controversial when I say science is inadequate to direct human beings. It can take us to the moon, but it cannot tell us why we should want to go there. To borrow a metaphor: our scientific conquest of nature has made us giants with respect to man of previous ages, but we have given up on the pursuit of knowledge of ends. Thus, we are blind giants. But the giant, precisely because of his power, is most in need of knowledge of ends.

What knowledge can direct the blind giant? I sympathize with the student who is inclined to say it is not possible to have any true knowledge of ends. We, MIT students, are predisposed to give up on the possibility of knowing ends in part because we believe that what is knowable in the definitive or authoritative sense is what can be subjected to rigorous scientific analysis. It is certainly not obvious that there is a science of values, i.e., that we can scientifically demonstrate the goodness of certain ends. Why should we think any other way? Modern natural science seems to have set an untouchable standard of truth. As Neil deGrasse Tyson asserts, “After the laws of physics, everything else is opinion.”  But we would not be honest with ourselves if we claimed we did not believe in ends or that it is not at all possible to rank the various ends of human life. 

Our anger has a way of revealing our true opinions. At least for myself, the first fruits of my education were realizing that I was strongly attached to certain ends and that I demanded others hold the same ends as I did.  My indignation at what I perceived to be injustice was the most important evidence.  But anger is problematic in that it is an implicit claim to know. When we are angry, we do not doubt ourselves but are certain that we are in the right. My education has showed me that I was not, and am still not, clear about precisely what justice is. In general, a great benefit of the human education is that it can temper our zeal by revealing our ignorance to ourselves. This is not to deny anger can be a powerful political tool; however, it can also be a dangerous one. Anger gave us Trump. It seems to me it is more appropriate for us as students to approach human questions in a moderate way, not believing we know the answers before we have even understood the problems.   

If MIT is going to be more than an extravagant and expensive vocational school, if the education it provides is going to be more than information transfer, then it should do what it can to promote this kind of human education: an education that is self-reflective, concerned with the fundamental human questions.     

At a place like MIT, it is very difficult to put these questions at the heart of one’s education.  I was fortunate to spend my freshman year in Concourse, the somewhat obscure freshman learning community, where this kind of education is alive and flourishing. It is dedicated to an education of the whole human being. Nearly every important thing I learned at MIT, I learned in Concourse, not only in the classroom, but in conversations with professors and classmates, and at all hours. In Concourse, I came to understand that part of what it means to be educated is to see clearly what one believes and to scrutinize those beliefs by considering serious alternatives. We cannot be open to alternatives if we never acknowledge that we might be wrong. I can say with certainty that all students who go through Concourse and take it seriously have their opinions challenged.  They come out the other side improved as human beings. Some opinions are pruned away, and some are left unchanged. But in either case we leave Concourse better equipped to defend what we believe, to understand the limits of what we know, and most importantly, to get the most out of our other classes.

MIT as an institution should encourage students to seek out those courses and professors that can bring to life these fundamental human questions. As I said, I stumbled into my education.  But I am so grateful I did. The four years of undergraduate education are uniquely suited to this kind of open and honest inquiry. There is no other moment in our lives where we have the security and freedom that allow us the time to live with the uncertainty about the big questions.  As soon as we graduate, we are rushed back into the world and forced to depend on the answers we have formed. MIT need not undertake bold experiments to improve its education — what we as students need most is a human education.

Christopher Sanfilippo is a member of the MIT Class of 2017

—Will Jack '17, Sasha Rickard '18, Ian MacFarlane '18, and Mary Jane Porzenheim ’19 are also signatories.