Vote for a better world

In MIT's sesquicentennial year, Susan Hockfield looks back at its founding principles and their lessons for an uncertain future

October 6, 2011
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Source: iStock

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's story began 150 years ago, and its founding contains a lesson that resonates clearly today. William Barton Rogers, MIT's founder and first president, a brilliant scientist and a charismatic teacher, had a revolutionary educational vision. Interested in accelerating the US' early industrialisation, he lamented the dearth of people who grasped the principles of science and engineering firmly enough to invent the new technologies and create the new materials needed to seize the opportunities of industrial progress.

At the time, most American colleges stressed the rote memorisation of classical education; by contrast, and building on important precedents in Europe and the US, Rogers saw the need for a "polytechnic institute", where students would master science and engineering through real-world problem-solving and hands-on research. Because he championed abstract scientific discovery, practical applications and their fruitful interaction, the institution he founded helped advance the US' development as an industrial powerhouse, and MIT became a new kind of "innovation machine".

For those of us concerned with the state of higher education today, this story poses a contemporary challenge and supplies a surprisingly fresh sense of inspiration. In founding MIT, Rogers performed an act of service and leadership, not only for the academy but also for society as a whole. As David Mindell, MIT professor of the history of engineering and manufacturing, has put it, Rogers looked at the society around him and, in launching the institution, cast a vote for the kind of future he hoped to see.

So today, in our own complex historical moment, what kind of future should we vote for? What kind of world should our students be prepared to lead? And, depending on how we answer those questions, how should higher education change and how can we provide leadership useful to society as a whole?

We live in a precarious time, one that tests the limits of human ingenuity and understanding: a time when the world has never depended more on science and technology even as it seems, on the whole, dangerously ill-equipped to understand either.

Ironically, despite the staggering complexity of our myriad global predicaments, this is also a moment when many in the US question the value of higher education and the utility of government-sponsored research.

In such a time, those of us charged with educating the next generation have a special responsibility to lead. If the answers to many of humanity's most pressing shared problems depend on advanced science, engineering, analysis and policy, we must aggressively prepare our students for the generational challenges ahead.

We must insist on their scientific and mathematical literacy, and yet prepare them to develop culturally responsive, politically effective solutions through broad, global education in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

We must develop their skills in cross-cultural, interdisciplinary problem-solving to tackle the planet's looming problems: clean energy and climate change, poverty and famine, the health of our oceans and the future of our cities.

We must prepare them to deploy the growing convergence of the life, physical and engineering sciences to develop new approaches to disorders from cancer to autism to Aids; and for new technologies to make healthcare more accessible, more effective and less expensive.

We must equip them to harness the power of that convergence far beyond biomedicine via new energy technologies, bio-inspired devices and transformative industrial methods.

As the torrent of information becomes a deluge, we must develop new leaders who can help bring intelligence to analyse the data. We must give them the tools to make our economies more resilient and less inequitable, and to make sustainability the only sensible model in business. And we must inspire them to help reinvent manufacturing and to become the innovators who will drive the next wave of new jobs and economic growth.

In an era that urgently needs more people who understand science and engineering, we must also extend the power of hands-on, problem-based learning well beyond our own students by freely sharing our teaching materials and methods over the web, as MIT and hundreds of other universities have done through the global OpenCourseWare Consortium. Above all, we must inspire young people from every background to understand that science, maths and engineering can give them the exhilarating power to become the active explorers and inventors who will help forge a better future rather than being mere spectators and consumers.

And just as Rogers understood the value of scientific discovery for its own sake, higher education must balance all these plainly useful assignments with a passionate commitment to fundamental curiosity-driven research.

We must stay hungry for exploration, from the great unsolved problems of maths, to the lyrical heights of music, literature and art, to the deepest recesses of nature and outer space. Resolutely reaching towards the unknown has served as the prologue to every important practical advance: it is also among the supreme expressions of the human spirit.

If we believe society should continue to support this purest form of enquiry, no one bears more responsibility for making the case than those of us who have travelled the frontiers of knowledge ourselves.

In MIT's founding year, 1861, Rogers observed that "we meet with daily increasing proofs of the happy influence of scientific culture on the industry and civilisation of nations". One hundred and fifty years later, because that influence is infinitely greater and not in every way happy, those of us in higher education must accept the responsibility to lead - by voting for a future of brave analysis, bold experiment and creative change.

Susan Hockfield is president, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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