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MIT student blogger Chris S. '11

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:

I love the humanities. If you haven’t noticed already.

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)

Not enough awesome yet? Junot Diaz teaches two writing courses at MIT, MIT has a vibrant Arts community, and the list just goes on and on…..

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.

Honest. :)

ps. I owe you all a giant photo blog soon =p

34 responses to “On MIT and Humanities”

  1. KayCee says:

    first. nice post, by the way!

  2. Sammy says:

    First, no way! It finally happened!

  3. Sammy says:

    Oh crud….. :(

  4. Marcela says:

    Yay! Amazing post! I was a teeny bit unsure when I left (heck, I asked that EXACT question at CPW), but this definitely turns the scales up in MIT’s favor. Yay problem-solving!

  5. Anonymous says:

    What’s with the counting?

  6. Sheila '13 says:

    Awesome!!! I can’t wait!!

  7. Piper '12 says:

    As another HASS lover, I think you are awesome for writing this post :D

  8. Someone says:

    MIT is a good place to study so people think that students there study 24/7. And if MIT is boring you can enjoy in Boston wink

  9. Although I’m not a humanities person per se, I am one of those people that loves lit and history almost as much as math and science and I know that I definitely want to keep exploring history and especially lit on the side even though I’ll probably major in something science-y. It’s amazing to know that MIT offers so many opportunities for humanities – thanks SO much for this post. :D

  10. Fred says:

    Just curious – as major in Biology, what is “Biology” related to “US-Japan Student Conference”?

  11. Oasis '11 says:

    @ Fred –

    My assigned conference topic is “Health and Modern Technology,” which still relates to what I study.

    But either way, half the stuff I do don’t even have to do with my major. =p I guess I have interests in too many areas…=p

  12. Anonymous says:


    11 @Anonymous:

    11 <– above is “one 1”
    21 <– “two 1s”
    1211 <— “one 2 one 1”


  13. Anonymous says:

    Oops I accidentally commented out what I wanted to say

    “one 1”
    “two 1s”
    “one 2 one 1”


  14. Banerjee says:

    Yaaaay, go MUN!! By the way, did you go to SIMUN or another MUN?

  15. Oasis '11 says:

    @ Vinay –

    I took 14 exams (2 soph, 6 junior, 6 senior). All the money donated to Collegeboard!! >____>

    @ Monkey King –

    My GPA is exactly how much my lunch cost yesterday. wink (minus tax)

    @ Banerjee –

    The next giant photo post will be about MUN, actually. I did MITMUNC (our own conference for high schoolers), HNMUN (harvard MUN) and WorldMUN (the hague!) this spring.

  16. Bridger '13 says:


    Awesome. My mom got really hung up on that spelling when she saw it on Building 7. raspberry

  17. Vinay says:

    Just curious, but how many APs did you take in high school? You seem like the kind of person that would take a ridiculous amount.

  18. Monkey King says:

    Yay…You are very strong…How is your grade like in MIT? How’s ur GPA? Just curious…

  19. Anna says:

    Ha! Maybe teaching is your calling instead. Those people are definitely lucky to have you as a teacher.

    Question. For the awards from the Foreign Language department, what languages are eligible for those? And for your IAPs, did you have to be fluent in Japanese and Spanish to take part in it? Are there any other IAPs in say Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand among others? Thanks and great post!

  20. Anonymous says:

    What exactly constitutes “humanities”? Obviously, things like history etc., but how about subjects like art or economics?

  21. Garrett '13 says:

    Great post, Chris. It made me feel a little bit better about insane psets in the coming years (still a little intimidated). I definitely fall into the category of people who never want to see another literary analysis prompt again, but I’m still looking at some of the other humanities courses. I appreciate your ~4 hours of work on this entry. smile

  22. Oasis '11 says:

    @ Anna –

    I love teaching…actually. But I don’t know whether I would be content to live my whole life as a teacher/professor.

    There’s like a general award that’s given to any foreign language student that has demonstrated significant ability, so I think all languages are eligible for that. Also, if you followed the link, you’ll see that there are also language-specific awards given to students studying French and German.

    IAP Spain was through MIT – we took Spanish 2 there, so you definitely do not have to be fluent to go on that trip. Japan this January I did without MIT assistance (MIT doesn’t have an IAP program in Japan), so that one was a little bit different. (I took the equivalent of Japanese 4 there). January Scholars in France is selective and you need to have taken past French 4. IAP Germany is open to students without any knowledge in German since you take German 1 there, and I think that’s it for foreign language IAP trips. There are a ton of other IAP trips though through various MIT departments if you look for them. If you want, you can also initiate your own language-study trip since there’s a ton of external organizations that conduct those as well.

    @ Garrett –

    Noooo, these blogs don’t take me 4 hours because it doesn’t have pictures! (this blog took me 1 hour-ish). haha. The photo-heavy blogs take forever!! =p

  23. Oasis '11 says:

    @ Anonymous –

    To me, humanities is everything that’s not biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and math. So I count art as humanities as well.

    Econ’s more fuzzy. MIT considers it as a Social Science so it fits in with our HASS requirement (humanities, arts, and social science). I don’t personally think it’s real “humanities” though since the econ classes here use multivariate calculus at times but I know Econ at many other schools entail writing essays – so meh. up to you. =p

  24. Monkey King says:

    Huh?? How much did your lunch cost? I don’t understand he..he..

  25. Anonymous says:

    The superfluous boasting in this post is revolting.

  26. Oasis '11 says:

    ^ If you have any better way of writing about humanities at MIT without using personal examples, be my guest. I’m not forcing you to read my blog, so if you think it’s “revolting” – then by all means, please go do something else that doesn’t disgust you.

    In either case, I hardly see the constructiveness of your comment at all.

  27. JLAB '13 says:

    This post I think made me sure of my decision to go to MIT. I’ve been thinking about Brown vs. MIT for a while, since Humanities has always been just as if not more important than math and science to me. But I did a summer program at MIT, and my brother went to MIT, and I really love the community and the mentality that exist at MIT. Thanks for the post!

  28. Narce says:

    I love every blog where you mention Japanese and Japan :3

  29. Oasis '11 says:

    @ Rose –

    Don’t worry – I get emails that begin with “Hey Christ” a lot. I’m always like WHOOAAA! haha

    I really understand what you mean. For example, I’m completely against doing things that you don’t enjoy just “for the resume” or “for the experience.” Granted, you might run into things that you just HAVE to do, but meh, I try to always look around for opportunities that fill “what I need to do” but is still enjoyable at the same time. For example, I wouldn’t do a UROP just for the sake of doing it. I would find things that I really enjoyed; it’s like killing two birds with one stone – if you’re doing something that you enjoy, you’re more likely to put your whole heart into it, and if you put your whole heart into something, you’re more likely to outperform yourself and be awesome. So usually this is how I view these kinds of things. I like to think – with so many opportunities around us, why settle for something that you don’t like? wink

    @ Narce –

    Missed you at CPW! =p

  30. Rose says:

    Hi Chris,

    (fact: accidentally typed a “t” after your name and quickly backspaced– that would have been awkward)

    It’s relieving to know that it is possible to do all the things you’re interested in. (It’s really easy to get caught up and do things that what you may think will make you “successful” and then ask yourself why you dedicate 13 hours a week to an internship you are not happy with or stay with a UROP that you find completely mind-numbing.)

    How do you keep perspective?

  31. Cathy says:

    I’ve always been a LEETLE worried about the whole “humanities” problem at MIT… (it’s so true, all of my friends tell me, but isn’t MIT for NERDS?) I mean, I know that it claims everyone is well-rounded and such, but still, sometimes when a school has “institute of technology” in it it can get kind of hard to understand how it could be balanced. But this entry cleared things up so much! HA, MIT is still the place I want to be. Thanks!

  32. Alice says:

    Chris, since you are pre-med taking MCAT, why do you care about humanity so much?

  33. Oasis '11 says:

    ^ Because I just love it too much.