The role of the humanities in American education has been the subject of much recent debate amid concerns that the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) are eclipsing the humanities fields in relevance and career prospects.
So some may be surprised, and, I hope, reassured, to learn that here at MIT — a bastion of STEM education — we view the humanities, arts, and social sciences as essential, both for educating great engineers and scientists, and for sustaining our capacity for innovation.
Why? Because the Institute’s mission is to advance knowledge and educate students who are prepared to help solve the world’s most challenging problems — in energy, health care, transportation, and many other fields. To do this, our graduates naturally need advanced technical knowledge and skills — the deep, original thinking about the physical universe that is the genius of the science and engineering fields.
But the world’s problems are never tidily confined to the laboratory or spreadsheet. From climate change to poverty to disease, the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale, and engineering and science issues are always embedded in broader human realities, from deeply felt cultural traditions to building codes to political tensions. So our students also need an in-depth understanding of human complexities — the political, cultural, and economic realities that shape our existence — as well as fluency in the powerful forms of thinking and creativity cultivated by the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
MIT’s curriculum has evolved significantly over the past 50 years to require all undergraduates to spend substantial time on subjects like literature, languages, economics, music, and history. In fact, every MIT undergraduate takes a minimum of eight such classes — nearly 25 percent of their total class time.
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