Out of the cave
The true defense of the communications requirement
“But the most noble and profitable invention of all was that of speech. … Without speech among men there would be no more commonwealth, society, contract, or peace than there is among lions, bears, and wolves.” —Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
The other day I overheard a group of freshmen planning their courses for the fall. They were comparing notes on which classes required the least effort and, especially, the least writing. I get it, writing is hard, and MIT students don't have time to agonize over their word choice when they're already agonizing over differential equations. And I'm not convinced by the standard defense of writing courses at MIT that students need to be able to communicate their ideas. This argument reminds me of when high school math teachers tell their students that math is essential for financial planning. It may be true, but it's far from compelling. This defense doesn’t get at the heart of what is enjoyable and useful about math, and neither does the need for communication with others get at what is most satisfying and compelling about writing. What I want to argue is that you should learn to write clearly not so that others can understand you, but so that you can understand yourself and so that you can see the world in all its nuance and color.
Writing requires you to generate, organize, and refine your opinions and arguments about the world. First, you have to find your argument. You have to uncover a question or problem that people (or at least you) care about. A good paper about Shakespeare's Richard III will not just state the facts of Richard's villainy and remorse. It will make an argument about whether Shakespeare wants us to understand Richard as irredeemable (and therefore whether any one of us is truly irredeemable). The possibility of redemption is of interest to all of us, and by connecting the minutia of Shakespeare's word choice to this larger question, you can manage to make otherwise mundane details come alive with significance.
Next, writing trains you to organize and make sense of chaos. An idea for an essay is like an unfamiliar country which you must map out and learn to navigate. You must learn the extent and layout of the land, separate it into its regions, and establish the paths which connect them. As you explore you begin to learn the nuances of the regions and the subtle distinctions between the ecosystems. When writing, you gradually come to see the contours of your idea. What began as a vague homogeneous blob of a thought comes into focus as a set of distinct facts which you travel between to form your narrative or argument. The more you practice this mapping, the easier it becomes and the better you get at organizing information and arguments.
Once you have established some structure and argument, writing helps you practice being clear about the logical steps you are making. When you write, you must extract your ideas from the web of assumptions and logical shortcuts in your mind and state them openly for others to understand. In doing so, you also make the ideas clearer to yourself. When you are forced to write down, explain, and defend your opinions, you invariably realize holes in your logic and places where sloppy thinking or conventional opinion replaces independent reasoning and empirical evidence. That awareness enables you to think through those opinions more fully and come to more deliberate conclusions.
This is most significant when it comes to political, moral, and personal questions. When you write a paper on a work of philosophy or politics, you are forced to shine a light on opinions which have deep personal relevance. Writing your position in words can be the most effective way of showing you when you cannot adequately defend your opinions, even those to which you are deeply attached.
In order for writing to have this effect however, you have to be given support and encouragement. Not all writing courses set high enough expectations or provide sufficient feedback to help students learn. But a few do. If you find yourself in one of those courses, I advise you to take full advantage of it. Learning to write can be painful. For most of us it is too difficult a process to be undertaken alone. You need someone to demand it of you and to guide you through it. But in exchange, you get a tool for seeing the world in all its intrigue and nuance and for seeing your own opinions with greater clarity and precision.
So the next time a professor demands that you write more than you want to, or grades you harshly on a paper, consider hearing his or her demands with gratitude. Try to accept the challenge and embrace the opportunity to learn to see the world and your own opinions more richly.
Sasha Rickard is a member of the MIT class of 2019.