Senior Daniel Collarini says studying the humanities at MIT shook him up to the point where he opened his mind. “When people are telling you over and over that you’re wrong, and it’s one against five, it really makes you open up and listen.
“I’ve really grown to appreciate others’ opinions,” he says, adding he is now much more receptive than when he came to MIT. “It makes me more tolerant because I can appreciate other points of view.”
It may seem unusual to major in the humanities and social sciences at a technological institution, but faculty and students say it actually makes perfect sense
“The humanities and social sciences at MIT are spectacular,” says history professor Pauline Maier, adding that the School of Humanities and Social Science is the best kept secret at the Institute — “a real hidden treasure,” she says. “It’s an exemplary place to study anything.
“It always raises some eyebrows that I major in music at MIT,” says junior Jason Krug, whose dream is to compose music for films.
“I could get a degree in the sciences and make good money, but after one term as a math major, I decided the uncertainty of where my next paycheck was coming from was not so important as doing what I love.”
You study what?
“When I tell people I study history at MIT, they just assume I study the history of science,” says sophomore Laura Moulton. And economics major David Matsa adds: “Even if people know MIT has the best economics program in the country, when you say you go to MIT, people still assume that you’ll become an engineer.”
Faculty and students agree that studying the humanities and social sciences enriches a technological education. It awakens the imagination, broadens the mind, and enables us to better understand not only ourselves, but each other.
“Majoring in history helps you interpret what’s going on in the world,” Moulton says. “It helps you interpret what’s going on in politics and society and helps you see social trends in a broader perspective than just your lifetime. Seeing the big picture is valuable for everyone.”
“Understanding ourselves is a lifelong process,” says literature professor James Buzard. “It isn’t something one arrives at when you get a degree. Training in the humanities gives you the tools to embark on that process.”
Krug adds: “Regardless of whether you’re a mechanical engineer trying to build a doorknob or a biologist trying to discover the cure for cancer, the humanities and social sciences make us all around better people. Whatever science you do, you’re doing it for humankind. And the humanities and social sciences really connect us more to people.”
Sophomore Janet Hsieh majors in Spanish and minors in biology because she wants to become a medical doctor in Latin America. And, she says, what better training could she get than that?
“I won’t necessarily know how to treat a patient physically better because I know Spanish, but it might help me comfort someone more because I can communicate with them. For me, it’s so beneficial to have the technical as well as the liberal arts, and that’s what’s so great about MIT.”
“Teaching somebody how to do a sensitive reading of a Dickens novel is not going to make him a better engineer,” Prof. Buzard says, “but it can make him a more interesting person and that can affect the kind of job he does.”
Because it’s important for students to solve problems not only logically but also intuitively, all students must take a minimum of eight subjects in the humanities and social sciences to graduate from MIT.
“It’s great that MIT has a humanities requirement because it really broadens you,” says senior Adam Chandler, who majors in political science. “If they had a choice, many MIT students would just sit in front of a computer. The humanities and social sciences force you out of that shell.”
MIT is now incorporating more writing and speaking requirements into classes because the humanities and social sciences can teach us to better communicate. “You can be the smartest person in the world,” Chandler says, “but if you can’t get across your message in a well-thought-out form, nobody’s going to listen to you.”
“I really admire people who are well-spoken,” says senior Sarah Dash, adding that studying literature at MIT really has helped her become a better communicator. “It took me a while to feel comfortable talking in front of people, expressing myself, but reading and studying here has really helped me.”
“The general public understands things easier if it’s presented verbally rather than in mathematical terms,” Moulton says. “Being able to translate scientific equations into a more lucid verbal description is very important.”
Faculty say MIT’s technically-minded students are tremendously open to learning new subjects. Prof. Peter Donaldson, head of the literature department, says: “Because the students are interested in science and engineering their approach to the humanities is fresh. They have a clean lens so they don’t come to it with all these expectations.”
“The best students are often majoring in science or engineering and are studying the humanities and social sciences for fun,” Prof. Maier says. “They don’t have intense ego invested, so they can be more adventurous.”
Faculty say one of the best features at the School is its small classes, between 12 and 25 students. It encourages class discussion — not an MIT student’s forte.
“The students’ speaking skills just don’t reflect their intelligence,” Prof. Donaldson says. “It really shows up in group discussion. Students tend to be shy about the importance of their own opinions. The hardest thing is getting them to sit in a semi-circle; they want to sit in a line to preserve their anonymity.”
Sophomore Laura Moulton says small classes absolutely force you to communicate. “You can just sit and scribble notes in the science classes. But in the humanities and social sciences, there are so few of you that you really can’t hide.”
It is no secret to people around the globe that MIT has a world-class School of Humanities and Social Science.
Junior David Matsa was pleased to hear on the other side of the world that MIT is the premier place to study economics, which is his major. “Last summer, I went to Hebrew University in Israel and worked with economics majors, who all said: ‘We’re all trying to get to MIT to study economics and you’re coming here? It just doesn’t make sense.”
“MIT is an international institution,” says Linguistics Professor Shigeru Miyagawa, a senior scholar in Japanese. “The work we do reaches beyond the borders of the United States.
“One of the things the humanities and social sciences teach us is to look at things from different perspectives. And in the world our students will live and work in, it’s critical they acquire skills that the humanities and social sciences teach, like being sensitive to issues of a global community. What makes it great is our students are from a variety of cultures, races, and ethnicities, which really does enrich the classes.”
“Knowing other cultures and languages just really broadens your mind,” says Spanish major Janet Hsieh. “And learning a language with technology is definitely better than learning from a book.”
“We can help students learn better by application of technology,” Prof. Miyagawa says, adding that MIT’s interactive multimedia programs in foreign languages and literature offer students a great way to learn. It is why, he says, the entire MIT Japanese language program is on the World Wide Web. He also is executive producer of The Star Festival, a multimedia CD-ROM interactive documentary about Japan.
“Many projects at the School represent something wonderful that happens at MIT,” Prof. Miyagawa says. “So many people here cross departmental discipline boundaries in ways that are just amazing.”
“Problems require thinking beyond boundaries,” adds Prof. Donaldson. “The humanities and social sciences can make a contribution that leads to creativity in all fields.”