Twofish's Blog

March 5, 2007

Here we go again – Another wasted effort at curriculum reform at MIT

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 6:10 am

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I’m going to put on my angry blogger hat.  It gets attention, and I’m going to say things that need to be said.

In M12 of this months Technology Review, we hear yet once more about MIT trying to reform the freshman year.  I predict that nothing substantial well come from this, and that degree requirements will change slightly to reflect the different political powers of the departments at the Institute.

The problem is that thinking in terms of education as a list of credits and courses which can be only gotten at MIT (or any other institute) almost guarantees that discussions about curriculum will really be discussions about power within the Institute.  This discussion will end up *exactly* the same as every other such discussion that has happened at MIT in the last fifty years, which is that the curriculum will be changed slightly in order to reflect changing power dynamics (management and biology up, physics down).

The way out of this is to realize that the world of learning and scholarship includes more than MIT, and to question the idea that education consists of degrees, courses, and credits.  We need to start by asking how MIT can and should interact with the wider world of academia and scholarship.  How can MIT work with community colleges, state universities, and high schools for mutual benefit.  Lets question the idea of a degree, of the course as the basic unit of instruction, of this silly and stupid idea that one needs to be “admitted” to MIT or any university.  I believe that anyone that wants an MIT education should get one.  Let’s figure out how to make that happen.

The reason for directing the discussion outward rather than inward, it that as long as the discussion gets focused inward, all people will end up doing is discussing internal politics.  By throwing the discussion outward, we begin by asking ourselves what the purpose of an education is, and then we can ask ourselves what is the role of MIT within the educational system, and then we look at the *entire* MIT experience and see how this fits within the entire educational system.  Also by throwing the discussion open, we end up including people that have nothing to do with MIT and are unconnected with institute politics, and hence can provide some outside insight, or say things that would be too radical for an insider to say.

I’m willing to bet that with this discussion, we will find that the question of what department teaches what courses and what the course requirements are will turn out to be irrelevant.   Who *cares* (other than the MIT physics department) whether or not physics is a one or two semester requirement.  Does this matter in the grand scheme of things?  No, and it’s silly to see so much energy wasted on trivia.  The courses at MIT make up only a tiny part of the MIT experience, and you could (and maybe you should) have every course at MIT taught by people outside of the institute, and it wouldn’t change what I think is the core of the MIT undergraduate experience.  Let’s start with the premise that the credit and required course list is largely irrelevant, and see where this gets us.

One final thing.  Right before she passed away, Dean Margaret  MacVicar was starting to realize how it was necessary to push the discussion outward rather than direct it inward.  She was trying to do this by pulling the regional accreditors into the discussion.  Right around the time she passed away, I realized in a rather nasty way how MIT was only a small part of a larger system, and how petty and irrelevant the discussions on the freshmen year of the late-1980’s were.  It would not only a shame if we went through the same round of basically the same discussions, but it also would be self-destructive.

If you look inward, there’s no reason to go through another round of “my department is important enough to be a required course and yours is not”, but if you look outside, it is clear that wasting time with this is damaging.  The world is changing, the internet is becoming more pervasive, we are in the middle of a long war that is going to last the next 100 years, global power is shifting.  If the discussion is focused inward rather than outside, and centered on the trivial rather than the substantive, MIT risks irrelevance.


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