Just the other day, I joined a handful of parents at my 15-yr-old’s high school. We were there to listen to a presentation about a new program for his junior year that would allow him to merge the arts with his required core classes in science, history, and math. One at a time, teachers and students stood up in front of us weary workday parents, who were yawning and fidgeting in small hard plastic chairs under the harsh fluorescent glare in the school library, to eloquently preach about how the program changed their life.
Nobody had to convince me. I spent most of the hour-long presentation unwrapping the foil from the Hershey”s chocolate kisses in the bowl on the folding table near my seat and popping them into my mouth as I listened. In my son”s case, I already knew that a curriculum filled with theater, drawing, and jazz would help him to focus on the academics that he doesn”t feel much affinity for otherwise. It was a “no brainer’ to me that if he could get accepted in this program, then of course, he should do it.
And then I started to think about the kids I get to know through their applications and their blog posts, and who I see every day passing me in a rush down the infinite corridor during the daytime hours of my job in the admissions office. How important is a humanities focus for these brilliant mathematical and scientific young minds smart enough to get into MIT for their college years?
I’ve always been a strong proponent of the arts and humanities, and even more so when the humanities converge with science and technology. I still have my dog-eared copy of Godel Escher Bach in my bookcase at home, right next to Marvin Minsky”s Society of Mind and Edward O Wilson”s Consilience, three of my very favorite books of all time for how they take broad ideas in the arts and humanities and expertly weave them with very specific scientific, mathematical, or biological principles. They do what all good books and art of this type should do. They bring the heady, technical, and scientific axioms and formulas to full, breathing, pulsating life.
And so when I first heard about a learning community option for a student”s freshman year called Concourse, I couldn”t help but get a little jazzed about it. Basically, the approach in this program is to allow students to understand the origins of modern science by exploring the literary and philosophical foundations through ancient and contemporary writers. I love the way they describe the rationale on the website:
Science and its powerful offspring, modern technology, have generated extraordinary benefits for mankind, but these benefits are not without complications. Astonishing advances in physics, medicine and energy have also produced devastating weapons and the specter of environmental destruction. Concourse aims to prepare the top scientists, engineers, scholars, innovators, and entrepreneurs of tomorrow to address these questions thoughtfully by studying the books of thinkers who have sought a comprehensive understanding of human life and the proper ordering of human goods.
Another one of the many perks of my job is that I can get up from my desk to stretch and travel down the infinite corridor in search of a diet Dr Pepper, and on my way I can look up to see all sorts of announcements and events flashing across the big screen high above the entryway to lobby 10.
On one day a couple weeks ago, I saw a message on that board for a briefing on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Stressed by hearing the constant reporting of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on my radio every morning as the alarm went off at 5am, this was another “no brainer’ to me. Of course I would go to this briefing and gain more perspective. I work at MIT! And I was there in my seat in 10-250 in that afternoon to hear exactly what, at the start of the panel discussion, the panelists cautioned they would NOT be addressing. No comments or questions regarding the broader philosophical concerns about nuclear power. This was a technical briefing.
Plenty of people packed the audience with pen and paper in hand eager to learn the specifics of how a nuclear reactor worked and what exactly was damaged in the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. There is, of course, merit and need for news briefings and specific technical information. Just as there is equal merit for one to, as Rhodes scholar Heather Wilson says, “think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.’
MIT students are so very lucky. They have choices. Really great choices. The Concourse program for freshman is not only a chance for integrated study in the science and humanities, but also a way for students to transition from high school to life at MIT by being part of a smaller community for a year.
“For me, the single greatest aspect of concourse is the phenomenal personal attention. You never feel anonymous or overlooked amongst hundreds of your peers, and help is always close at hand. Belonging to such a tight-knit group has made a huge difference in helping me adjust to the rigors of MIT. “ Marcel Williams
If you’ve been admitted to MIT and would like to find out more, please contact Paula Cogliano, Program Administrator. You can reach her by checking out the contact us page on the website.