Opinion guest column

MIT’s impact will be determined by its humanistic pursuits

The work of students must be grounded in values that examine history critically

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has the potential to play a leading role in the cause for humanity. The opportunity to demonstrate or abdicate leadership in this role presents itself each time MIT responds or neglects the challenges facing citizens across the nation and the globe. At MIT, we often speak of our ability to make a better MIT and thus a better world. The beauty within this quest we share as a community lies in our power to wield our authority; and we most directly influence humanity through the young community of citizens we teach ― our students. 

The Institute is more than an opportunity for students, graduate or undergraduate, to pursue an area of intellectual inquiry with vigor and successful determination. Whether students are working toward one major or two or three; whether spending time in a research lab or a student group; whether living on-campus in dormitories or fraternity and sorority abodes, or off-campus in similar establishments, apartments, and living groups; MIT’s responsibility, our responsibility, extends beyond what choices are made available to students during their time here — MIT’s responsibility is first in what precedes the student choice. Although seldom at the forefront of every student’s mind while we juggle the many aspects of what it means to attend a rigorously demanding place of learning, students gain knowledge of what it means for MIT to be a piece of our identity by the values taught and those values not taught both inside and outside of the traditional classroom. 

Values are revealed in our practice, they are most clearly shown in our actions. Values of hard work, collaboration, intellectual exploration, and community are highly impressed on students at the Institute. Values of diversity, equity, and inclusion are beginning to take a more central place in the MIT community and are in the process of becoming integrated in the ways we think about belonging for years to come. However, the value of history — its clarifying and action-inducing information — has yet to sustainably dwell at the Institute in ways that can only positively influence our pedagogies and administrative decision-making, that can only impress upon students who walk the Infinite the importance of knowing, as the artist James Baldwin states, “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” MIT has demonstrated partial understanding of Baldwin’s words. Yet, the whole must be engaged.

The information unearthed from the MIT&Slavery course is only activated and empowered when we engage with it in serious ways that demand reassessment of existing practices in our offices, departments, labs, and centers. What does it mean that MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers, was an enslaver of human beings? What does it mean for our institution to occupy lands first inhabited by people with respect for land’s sovereignty? Our history informs our values, and if we fail to reckon with our history then we cannot accept its demands for change on our present.

All American institutions suffer in both small and grandiose ways from failing to reckon with their history. This is little surprise since America itself continually struggles with this divine challenge, threatening its own citizens ability to be humane and function uprightly as citizens of the world. MIT has the potential to be humanist, and thereby produce humanists of grand impact for she is internationally-known, respected, and expected to produce citizenry equipped to significantly aid and innovate in the global fields where humanist values are proven time and again absent or in constant battle of erasure: the economic market, scientific exploration, government, and (inter)national crisis management.

What does it mean to be an MIT student? It means as much as MIT administration, staff, faculty, and students are willing to allow or demand it to mean. Will we teach our students they should espouse humanist values as central and not peripheral to their thinking? Will we allow pursuit of technological advancement to not precede but follow the humane considerations that technology implicates? MIT’s impact on the world of today, which is in large part its graduates, depends on the attempt to address or the decision to avoid these questions. At Princeton University’s “How Values Can be Taught in the University”, humanities professor Toni Morrison leaves her audience with these final words, of which I want to leave you with: “If the university does not seriously and rigorously take its role as guardian of wider civic freedoms, as interrogator of more and more complex ethical problems, as servant and preservor of deeper democratic practices, then some other regime or ménage of regimes will do it for us, in spite of us, and without us.”

Kelvin Green II is an undergraduate student in the Department of Physics. He is a member of Chocolate City, an assistant Officer on Diversity in the Undergraduate Association, and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Rho Nu Chapter.