On MIT and Humanities by Chris S. '11
I promise I will stop philosophizing (aka. sounding like an old man) in my entries soon.
Over this past weekend, many prefroshies asked me a very interesting question – and I believe that this warrants a more drawn-out response from me.
I hope the rest of you will similarly find this useful.
“MIT is just too nerdy. I question whether I would even be able to find a balanced humanities and science education at MIT.”
First off, here are a few things that you should really ask yourself about MIT, just to begin with:
1. Do you like science?
11. Do you want MIT to completely change the way you think about and look at science?
21. Even if you don’t want to major in science, do you think you will be able to complete the core sequence of 2 semesters of calculus, 2 semesters of physics, 1 semester of chemistry, 1 semester of biology, 2 electives in science, and 1 lab course?
1211. Do you enjoy the culture? Is MIT somewhere you can see yourself being at for the next 4 years?
If the answers to all of the above is “yes!” then you’re ready to move on –
Again, I hate doing the “been there-done that” talk (really!), but I really have no better way to begin this so here goes:
My favorite class by far in high school was AP English Literature. When our Lit teacher first dissected The Four Quartets for us that warm sunny day in March of my senior year, my view towards English Literature changed forever. I kept the Norton anthology that we used as a textbook in the class, and it’s been a regular favorite on my shelf at MIT ever since.
Equally, my other true love is History. AP US History was not enough to quench my insatiable thirst for history – I did AP Euro History and AP World History via self-study and proceeded to get 5’s in all three subjects. For a long time, I flirted with the idea of majoring in History at some really liberal-artsy college, although I eventually came to the decision that if history was a real passion for me, I’ll always be able to do it on the side, as a complement to my life (aka. I don’t have to actually “major” in it in college).
Given all of this, I turned down offers to Brown, Columbia (Davis Scholar), and Stanford (all having perceived “better” humanities programs than MIT does), when decision time came.
Many people have asked me why afterwards and whether I seriously thought that MIT was the best choice for me (they love to say, disdainfully, “isn’t MIT a school for nerds?“).
Here’s what I think:
111221. MIT has a small humanities program, but what we have are excellent.
312211. When you say a school is “good in the humanities,” you still can’t take every single class that the school offers. (let’s face it – as “great” as Harvard is, you can’t possibly take 1,000+ of their stellar humanities classes in 8 semesters. you’ll still have to pick and choose)
13112221. Following from what was pointed out in number 312211 above – MIT has more than enough awesome humanities classes for you to easily fill up your eight semesters here.
1113213211. If you still think that’s not enough – cross-reg at Harvard!
I think it all comes down to whether you want to be “the big fish in the small pond, or the small fish in the big pond.”
I think it’s fair to say – and I don’t think anyone can deny – that MIT does have a higher proportion of science freaks and people who rather not see another literary analysis prompt for the rest of their life compared to most leading universities that are not engineering and science-focused. However, if you think about it in the other direction – being a great humanities student here just means that you have more room to shine and stand out amongst your peers.
For example, you can opt to apply to become a Burchard Scholar (which Paul and I both are). The Burchard Scholars program identifies a group of students strongly interested in the humanities and connects them with the humanities faculty and visiting scholars and speakers for speaker dinner series and other events. For example, one of the best parts so far was meeting Yo-Yo Ma when he came to Boston in an outing organized by the Burchard Scholar’s program (we got a free ticket to his show at Symphony Hall too! – and psst, he’s in one of the photos on that blog I linked to if you can’t find him).
For example, the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures (21F! my favorite department here <3) awards outstanding students in the study of foreign language through their annual awards. Many opportunities via the MISTI international internship program are also possible if you demonstrate competence in a foreign language.
For example, the Department of Literature (21L) offers an exciting series of literature classes that are generally only a dozen students in size, providing great interaction between professors and students for knowledge exchange, relationship building, and – let’s face it – recommendation letters. 21L also receives some of the highest course evaluation scores at MIT, if you’re curious. (for the record, 21F receives the highest course evaluation scores, teehee)
Sure, we make jokes about science and math all the time and our professors have a propensity to fill the blackboard completely with unintelligible Greek symbols during math class – but you can still find a strong humanities community here if you just look for it and chase after your passions.
This said, I want to point out some other reasons why I feel like if you are a strong humanities student, it may even be better for you to come to MIT rather than another “traditional” humanities school.
31131211131221. MIT will completely revamp the way that you think about science. On the eve of nearly being halfway through my MIT career, I realized that quietly and slowly – one problem set at a time – MIT has changed the way that I perceive science.
Back in high school, I used to get by by memorizing patterns, tricks, and “shortcuts” to pass all my exams and assignments. However, MIT has taught me that I can’t rely on these things forever. If you were doing original research in cancer which no one has done before and in which there are no “established answers,” then what do you do in that case?
MIT trains us to be problem solvers and independent thinkers. This is why they hit us with insanely difficult psets – this is why they give us exams in which we feel like we always have no time to finish – this is why our science courses go nearly 2x or 3x faster than state colleges and many Ivies.*
(*independently verified by the author)
MIT wants to instill in us the confidence that after we leave the Institvte, we would be able to tackle whatever problems come our way, either through our own ability or with help from teammates.
Being a good humanities student, you’re getting an education which would make you stand out from your other literary peers – a rigorous scientific mindset and a keen eye for patterns, observations, and drawing conclusions.
13211311123113112211. Research opportunities. Word.
I feel like this is something that I can never emphasize enough – the awesomeness of MIT UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program).
At MIT, you have the opportunity to do original research in almost any field conceivable here with amazing faculty and staff who are the vanguards in their respective fields. What’s even more amazing that a sizable number of these labs are willing to take on people with little-to-none experience and take the time to train you to become a valuable intern!
When a friend that I know at UPenn is struggling really hard to even get a basic research position in a biology lab there, this kind of access to research jobs at MIT is almost unbelievable.
For me, I started out in a C. elegans lab with absolutely zero biology lab experience aside from looking at pretty slides and dissecting rats in AP Bio. I worked there for six months, learning the valuable ins-and-outs of basic bio research like setting up a PCR, running a gel, and purifying DNA. On the side, I learned a ton about the genetics of C. elegans, an organism I didn’t even know existed before coming to MIT. Six months later, satisfied with my experience, I embarked on finding another UROP – this time in Anthropology (21A).
Having taken NO classes in my life whatsoever in Anthopology, I began researching the state of indigenous rights in Nicaragua, which would culminate into a report sent to the United Nations Human Rights Council. This is more like an UROP that I just picked up for fun this semester and a one-shot-deal, but it just goes to show how willing professors are in letting undergrads work side-by-side with them. :)
Since coming to MIT, I’ve channeled my love of history by teaching a 6-week AP World History course to eight high school kids through the ESP Junction program last summer. My kids went on to score 770s and 800s on their SAT World History exams and many of them are anticipating a really good score in the upcoming AP exams next month. :)
I’ve explored diverse subjects across the Architecture, Economics, Political Science, Writing, and Foreign Language departments.
I’m part of the MIT Model United Nations team (serving as the ’09-’10 president for the group) – again, a very “humanities” activity, you probably would agree.
I just got accepted to an US-Japan Student Conference where selected American university students meet with similarly selected Japanese counterparts to discuss many global social, environmental, and political topics in Japan this summer.
I’ve strengthened my Japanese and Spanish ability, leading to two utterly phenomenal IAPs in those aforementioned countries.
…and I’m still enjoying every moment of my humanities education at MIT.
ps. I owe you all a giant photo blog soon =p