AAC&U News, June 2014
Perspectives

At MIT, the Humanities Are Just as Important as STEM

By Deborah K. Fitzgerald, The Boston Globe, April 30.

MIT is known around the world as a bastion of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), so it may surprise—and hopefully please—many to learn that the university believes the arts and humanities are essential elements of an MIT education, says Deborah K. Fitzgerald, a professor of history and dean of the MIT School of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. MIT’s mission is to prepare students to solve the world’s most challenging problems, and while this does require scientific knowledge and technical skills, “the world’s problems are never tidily confined to the laboratory or spreadsheet,” she says. Urgent challenges like poverty, climate change, and disease “are always embedded in broader human realities.”

To keep up with these challenges, MIT’s curriculum has evolved over the years, and all undergraduates spend time studying subjects such as literature, history, and music—about a quarter of their total class time. Studying these subjects helps MIT students gain historical and cultural perspectives and develop the communication skills that allow them to listen to the concerns of others and explain their own perspectives and reasoning. Students also learn, Fitzgerald says, “that most human situations defy a single correct answer, that life itself is rarely, if ever, as precise as a math problem, as clear as an elegant equation.”

Many MIT graduates—from doctors to engineers to entrepreneurs—have testified to the usefulness of studying a broad range of disciplines, citing courses in history, literature, and philosophy as crucial to developing their empathy and critical thinking skills. AAC&U’s recent surveys of business leaders confirm these testimonies—most employers are more concerned with graduates’ creativity, teamwork, and communication skills than their field-specific knowledge. Developing these cross-cutting capacities is especially crucial in a time of rapid globalization and economic change. “The stakes are high these days — for individuals, societies, for the planet itself — and we cannot be complacent,” Fitzgerald says. “Calling on both STEM and humanities disciplines — as mutually informing modes of knowledge — we aim to give students a toolbox brimming over with tools to support them throughout their careers and lives.”

Read the full op-ed at the Boston Globe.


The articles featured in AAC&U News Perspectives do not necessarily represent the views of AAC&U staff, its board of directors, or its membership.

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