Opinion guest column

Making a better world? Define better.

MIT should implement a Society and Ethics two-subject requirement

Priorities. “Academics, friends, sleep: pick two” — this meme is so prevalent at MIT that it was perhaps natural when a professor began this semester by suggesting to first-year students a ranking of priorities in the following order: “ACADEMICS, SLEEP, UROP, Extracurriculars, Exercise, Friends, Family.” It seemed funny at the time. Funny as in eyebrow-raising, head-scratching, seat-squirming: “Did they really just ignore physical and mental health during a pandemic?”

In 2015, the Black Students’ Union (BSU) and the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) presented sets of recommendations to MIT’s senior leadership. One of them was that leaders make a formal commitment to students’ health, diversity, and inclusion, with a statement such as “We care about the mental and physical health of our students before the quality of their work.” Also in 2015, a group of students launched a campaign for “People Before Psets.” While many within the MIT community have heeded these calls, the dominant cultural narrative remains “do more, sleep less, put academics first.” There is something fundamentally unethical about this narrative. Even as a pandemic disrupts life at MIT and around the world, we are expected to be even more available for Zoom calls than we would be for in-person meetings. It seems particularly wrong to continue to pretend that academic work should take precedence over matters of health, family, and personal well-being.

One year ago, MIT was wrestling with the ethics of dirty money, the resignation of the MIT Media Lab Director, and calls for greater student involvement in making decisions that affect them. The pandemic did not change everything; we are still wrestling with matters of people, power, and priorities. “This is how it’s always been. Get used to it.” But that is not what we are taught, and it is not why any of us came to MIT. We came here to make a better world. Yet MIT itself was in turmoil, even before the pandemic, #ShutDownSTEM, and the RISE Campaign. We are receiving a real eye-brow raising, head-scratching, seat-squirming MIT education.

In a different class this fall, STS.021/WGS.160 (Science Activism: Gender, Race, and Power), we learned that science is not as objective as we thought; it is a product of culture with deep connections to society. We studied the role of ethics in science and some of the history of science in ethics. We heard from activists, including many from MIT, whose priorities differed from the attitude that puts academics before all else. We realized that the MIT firehose was inadvertently pushing us further away from the very reason we came to MIT, namely to use science and technology to make a better world. “Define better. Our class on science activism caused us to question our implicit definitions.

Why are issues of society and culture absent from STEM classes at MIT? Is it because we haven’t thought about such things, because they are irrelevant, or because including them would challenge systems that perpetuate inequality? Either way, our education suffers. 

Excluding the Schools of Architecture and Planning and of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences (SHASS), we give MIT an NE grade on its education about the social and ethical implications of science and technology. By this we mean that it is an emergency grade, not that it is relevant only during a pandemic; the pandemic has only opened our eyes to the emergency-level educational injustice that has permeated MIT for decades.

We believe there needs to be fundamental change to address ethics and the social implications of science and technology in everything we do at MIT. Leadership statements are a start, but not nearly enough. If MIT continues to operate in the way it does, with such a technical-dominant culture, it will continue to lose (through disillusionment or burn-out) the brilliant ethically-minded and technically-equipped individuals who are genuinely capable of and interested in making a better world. What is left are MIT graduates who may embrace mens et manus, but lack the ethical-mindedness to fully become the positive force MIT claims we will be.

In 2015, another recommendation of the BSU called for an immersion studies HASS elective focusing on multiculturalism or diversity. The proposal was never pursued because of the strong feeling that restricting this to SHASS would further marginalize humanities and social sciences at MIT. When something is valued, society pays for it with the currency of the wealthy.

We propose that MIT implement a Society and Ethics two-subject requirement similar to the existing Communications Requirement. One-half of this requirement would be satisfied with a HASS subject (SE-H) and the remainder from the major (SE-M). Society and ethics can include multiculturalism, diversity, or the ethical, legal, and social implications of science and technology. Many subjects that could satisfy this requirement are already being offered within and beyond SHASS. Important details would need to be worked out before such a requirement is voted on by the faculty. The important thing is that our curriculum should better align with MIT’s mission.

Many other ways exist to “develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind,” including the efforts of many student groups and programs such as the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center. But if we do not address the ethical and social implications of what we do in every department and major, we have not learned enough from the last year, and we persist with misplaced priorities. As MIT students and faculty, we are smarter than that.

Emily Condon is an undergraduate student in Civil and Environmental Engineering. 

Alby Joseph is an undergraduate student in Materials Science and Engineering.

Eleane Lema is an undergraduate student in Chemistry.

Kate Pearce is an undergraduate student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Eveline Postelnicu is a graduate student in Materials Science and Engineering.

Celina Zhao is an undergraduate student.

Edmund Bertschinger is a professor of physics and a faculty affiliate in Women’s and Gender Studies.