Opinion guest column

Reimagining our MIT curriculum

Is this what an MIT education looks like?

This op-ed accompanies a video created by the Black Students’ Union. Before reading this piece, please watch the video.    

“Why are you dwelling on all these things that are so far in the past? Maybe if you want to study history, become a history major.” As stated by an MIT student in the 1990s, there is a prevalent sentiment that students at MIT, especially Black students, should focus on the future and forgo reflecting on the dark past. Our present-day curriculum requirements seem to agree with this student’s assessment. Each year, hundreds of MIT students graduate lacking a fundamental understanding of the effects that anti-Black racism and other systems of oppression have on our present-day technologies, even our own decision-making.

“You’re walking in the halls. There’s no one around and the lights are out. Out of the corner of your eye you spot him; Average black male around 5ft 6” wearing a blue backpack,” is the opening to an email sent by East Campus residents during last Black History Month to their dorm community. These MIT students’ poor attempt at so-called “comedy” is overshadowed by the covertly racist rhetoric — “Average black male around 5ft 6” wearing a blue backpack,” being repeated no less than nine times throughout the email. For those who’ve seen the “It’s Intuitively Obvious” series (1996) produced by MIT, the EC email (2020) is strikingly reminiscent of the fear and ignorance rooted in the minds of the 1993 white members of Phi Beta Epsilon Fraternity who shouted “Fuck Chocolate City. Fuck all niggers,” to a group of Black MIT students walking towards their dorm along Amherst Alley.

From being founded by a slaveholder in 1861 to vandalism by swastika on the 2019 Black History Month display, the Institute has largely neglected the goal of reckoning with its own racist history. The work of the MIT & Slavery course is critical to this goal, but its research findings have been limited in their ability to create radical shifts in our Institute curriculum. This institutional failure leads to racism continually rearing its head in the perspectives shared by our students. It is difficult to hold anyone responsible for what they do not know. It is doubly difficult to hold someone responsible for what they were not taught, despite receiving a so-called internationally-renowned and respectable education. Yet, as an institution for learning, we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and change this pattern.

As an Institute, we currently have strict standards for what an MIT student must know to graduate. From being able to swim to understanding the replication of DNA, MIT has mandated that students take General Institute Requirements (GIRs) in the fields of mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, and the humanities, seeing these as critical to a student’s education. But by that same logic, why does MIT fail to teach the genesis of the technology we use today? And how it is often rooted in exploitation of land, socio-economic status, even another human’s mind and body? 

MIT requires its students to demonstrate their ability to swim four lengths of a swimming pool to earn their degree. And yet, this proactive approach designed to prevent students from drowning in the Charles isn’t replicated in an approach to prevent students from creating, contributing, or approving the use of technologies that perpetuate systemic racism at home and abroad? 

Our concern for the curriculum is not a new one. In 2015 the Black Students’ Union published a list of demands mandating an immersion studies course (BSU 2) that has only been avoided on the merits of its proposed implementation. We do not propose to be the experts on how this knowledge should be implemented in the MIT curriculum, but we remain experts on our experiences as Black students and have conviction that we cannot continue to conduct business as usual. The sloth-like pace of MIT’s progress towards an inclusive educational environment is why Black student experiences today match the experiences of Black alumni for decades with uncanny accuracy. Their voices still echo through the Infinite yearning for change. 

It is MIT’s responsibility to educate its students who become leaders in their communities, the world, and beyond. It is a failure that most of our department curricula are devoid of requisite studies on social inequities, absent of historical examples of the human cost of both scientific and technological advancement, and barren of the institutional history lessons which work to lead students to be better than many of the historical figures we learn from in our classes. A Course 7 student graduating during the COVID-19 pandemic without knowledge of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments is unprepared. A Course 20 student who does not know the story of Henrietta Lacks is unprepared. A Course 6 student without an understanding of the effects of implicit bias in machine learning is unprepared. And the list goes on. How many more students will graduate ignorant of the inequities and injustices that developed and continue to impact their field of study?  

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first “It’s Intuitively Obvious” production, a series of videotapes depicting MIT students discussing issues of race. Will it be another 25 years before our curriculum meets its educational duties and responsibilities? We need allies in this effort. Students, staff, faculty, administrators and Corporation members — we are asking for your help to ensure that before we turn our brass rats and leave this side of the Charles, we are prepared; prepared to face the rising challenges of an ever awakening world. We must reimagine our MIT curriculum and then, and only then, can we say MIT has succeeded in its mission to “advanced knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.”

Please share the BSU’s video and this opinion editorial with your network. Thank you for your acts of solidarity.

Danielle Geathers is a member of the MIT Class of 2022.
Kelvin Green II is a member of the MIT Class of 2022.
Tyler Lawal is a member of the MIT Class of 2024.
Myles Noel is a member of the MIT Class of 2024.
Brian Williams is a member of the MIT Class of 2022.
Sienna Williams is a member of the MIT Class of 2023.