History and South End House: What’s After MIT?
Meet Tobit, a 2023 who majored in 18 and 21H
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Name and Class: Tobit Glenhaber, Class of 2023
Areas of Study: Major in Course 18 (Mathematics) and 21H (History)
Living Group: Random Hall
Home State: Somerville, MA
Activities: Secretary, Trainer, and Spinner for MIT Spinning Arts
After graduating from MIT in June, what are you currently doing?
I am a paralegal at a law firm in Baltimore. As a senior, I thought I might want to do law school but wanted some experience in the legal profession before committing to the rather high financial and time commitment. Now that I know I enjoy it, I’m applying to law school.
Before coming to MIT, what were you planning to major in? Did you expect to double in 21H? What made you decide to double in 21H?
Back when I was applying to MIT, I don’t think I could have predicted I’d be a 21H/18 double major but I’ve always been interested in history and math. MIT’s SHASS department is really good, and it’s often overlooked. So when I got to MIT, I started taking history classes alongside my math classes, and that snowballed into “wait, I’m taking enough classes I can just double major in this!” Towards the end of my time at MIT, I became interested in law school in no small part because of some of the history classes I took.
Math and history really complement each other too, so it was pretty manageable since they’re intense in very different ways. Instead of having four psets a week, it felt like a nice combination of readings and essays alongside psets.
Some history classes I particularly enjoyed:
History of the Ghetto: From Venice to Harlem (21H.385), taught by Prof. Craig Wilder. He was an incredible professor. I took it during my sophomore fall, and it really cemented the era of history I realized I was interested in, the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
History of Capitalism — This involved a series of classes on topics like Commodity History, the History of American Economic Regulation (Harvard Law School History 2477), Global Commodities, American Dreams (21H.388), the History of Capitalism (21H.S01/11.S944): The Institutions of Modern Capitalism and the Rise of Market Society, taken in my senior spring), and so on taught me how capitalism has affected American history. These classes had persistent themes of what the government was doing and how the law was being shaped by historical trends, which led to me wanting to go to law school.
What did you write for your 21H thesis?
I wrote my thesis on the South End House, an example of the settlement house movement. This concept took off in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as college-educated women created new ideas and techniques for charity work. Because of the Gilded Age, there were massive slums in many cities, and they were trying to figure out how to reform this. Specifically, I studied the ones in Boston (South End House), and I essentially found some things that are emblematic of the Progressive Era (which is how the historical period is usually framed), but some ways still look at Gilded Age-esque view of capitalism.
The main thing these women did was to teach the people in the slums “how to succeed in Capitalism.” They never questioned if this was the best thing to do; they taught the people how to have (what they percieved as) a “good” work ethic or get hired, which perpetuated these capitalistic systems. They further believed that, by succeeding at capitalism, the people they helped would be able to prosper in all dimensions of American society. I was initially interested in how the settlement house movement used big data techniques to inform their work, but the thesis ultimately took on a life of its own in the directions it went.
Do you see any intersections between what you learned from Course 18 and 21H, or do you see them as separate entities?
In many ways, they are different, where math is more purely built up from axioms and history is reasoning backwards from the limited set of end results that have survived, but they’re both really about abstractions at some point. They’re both a limited view of the world, and you have to try to see what you can say from various disparate sources. For example, math asks how multiplication is like addition, if you ignore the right things. Often, mathematicians will take a tool from one field and apply it somewhere else by saying “from a certain point of view, these two areas of math are actually talking about the same thing.”
History has some of the energy of looking at multiple things in a weird way to see in what ways they’re the same. Like how the 70s is similar to the 20s depending on the way you squint to look at it. One of the key tools in both the historian and mathematician's toolbox is abstraction to be able to compare disparate ideas.
If you were not either a Course 18 or 21H major, what major would you have been?
Possibly a Course 11-6 (Urban Science and Planning with Computer Science). Looking back at this possible major is interesting. I took CS in high school, and for whatever reason, didn’t take a CS class until 6.009 [6.1010] (Fundamentals of Programming) in my senior year, so it never really happened for me. But I can definitely see myself being a Course 6.