Great works and the Arcosanti file

by Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70 on September 26, 2010 · 9 comments

in Classroom, Prof. Winston's Ideas

Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

Once an acquaintance, classically educated, asked me if I had read Thucydides. He knew I went to MIT, so I think he was hoping and expecting me to say “Who’s Thucydides.”

But I said, “Of course, and I especially like the way Thucydides handled detail in his description of the investiture of Syracuse.”

He changed the subject.

In the old days, freshmen and sophomores were all empowered by taking the same four humanities subjects, which started with the Odyssey and concluded with the French revolution. Some sections met on Saturday mornings. Everybody read the same books at the same time. Just about everyone who took those subjects has fond memories of them.

Many of the instructors were Harvard students working on their PhD dissertations. Many of the students had parents who had emigrated from Europe. We joked that the four courses centered on Christian traditions taught by atheists to Jews.

Alas, those subjects are no more, and now everyone is free to pursue specific interests in the humanities, where specific interest is often severely limited by accidents of schedule conflict.

In thinking about how MIT should change, it occurred to me that we ought to have, say, two subjects centered on Great Science and Great Engineering.

Like our back-in-the-day humanities subjects, these subjects would be taken by all the
freshmen.  Also, they would focus on original sources, starting in the first
semester with a common core of great classics—such as Einstein’s paper on the
photo-electric effect and Watson and Crick’s two-page paper announcing the structure of
DNA.  In the second semester, individual sections could veer off toward biology,
physics, computer science, mechanical engineering, and so on.  Students with a
scientific and engineering gene would be inspired.  Those without one would find out

So I wrote up a prospectus, complete with sections on benefits for students, benefits for
the faculty, content, and assignments.

Of course, as I wrote, I knew there are lots of reasons why such subjects will never be
taught.  I even knew some reasons why they would be a bad idea.

But I once visited Arcosanti, the experimental town in the Arizona desert conceived and promoted by Paolo Soleri. I was particularly impressed by an exhibit of architectural models of buildings designed by architects who knew they were too out-of-the-box ever to be built. I suppose they were designed partly for fun and partly for discussion.

That’s why I wrote up a prospectus.  It’s on my disk under Arcosanti.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Batay-Csorba '68, PhD, MD September 27, 2010 at 9:30 am

A few years ago, I was advising the prosecutor (the Canadian equivalent of the American district attorney)about an important court case that depended on knowing the drug levels in the blood of the defendant. I explained to him and several of his colleagues that the blood drug level decayed exponentially as the drug was excreted by the kidneys. I explained that the best way to approach the problem was to enter the data in a log-log plot and extrapolate the straight line. After a few awkward minutes, the chief prosecutor remarked, “Log?”. The assistant, emboldened, added, “Log-log?”.
They had no idea what logarithms were. These gentlemen steered their academic careers since high school toward law. They probably rejected math and science courses because they could not see any relevance to their profession. Yet, here was a case where it was crucial to their case to understand the mathematics. This is another example of the ridiculous situation to allow young students to pick their courses. It emphasizes what you are saying about our MIT experience.
Another time, in the O.R., the surgeon explained that his son was doing a summer project in Crete in the archeological sites. I explained that I was interested in the Minoan civilization. The surgeon was surprised that I had even heard of it; since, this was his first time. I am surprised, in turn, how does somebody go on a long academic career to became a surgeon without ever hearing of the Minoans? There was a time when doctors had a very good well-rounded education. I have medical colleagues that have avoided math and physics in their studies, and have a very poor understanding of probabilities and statistics. How are they to form an opinion as to the merits of the research that they read in the medical journals? How can they, in turn, design and interpret their own research? It is not surprising that so much garbage gets published in medicine. It is not surprising how little understanding the general population has for topics for which they are willing to be militantly vociferous, such as nuclear reactors, genetically modified foods, the environment, ecology, “locavores”, “organic foods”, chiropractic medicine, “natural medicines”, acupuncture, homeopathic medicines, etc.


Tim Chambers September 27, 2010 at 11:23 am

I love your Great Science and Great Engineering idea, Professor. However, I wish I had some lasting memories of my professors expounding the virtues of being well-read in the Classics. Do you do that with undergrads? I still remember your A.I. lectures, but I don’t remember you mentioning ancient Syracuse in 6.034.

MIT prides itself on its balance of math/science and humanities. Given the fire hose of knowledge we have to absorb to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in four years, I don’t regret having chosen to focus on the former. But it’s not either/or. It has to be both/and. After I left the ‘Tute my thirst for literature, philosophy, and art increased. (Interestingly, it was an acquired taste for me — rather like adding fine wine to my less mature thirst for beer.) I continue to familiarize myself with the Great Conversation. I didn’t start Thucydides until long after leaving the ‘Tute. (Thank you for the inspiration, Mortimer Adler!) MIT forms us to be lifelong learners, and for that I am eternally grateful. I’m only now reading Dorothy L. Parker’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I guess I just wasn’t ready to put the study time into it before this year.

I think all college freshmen would benefit from a mandatory survey of the Great Conversation. The Enlightenment added science to the philosophy, mathematics and theology that had been the focus of learning up to that point. Of course you know that it took over a century for “natural philosophy” to evolve into the science as we now know it. Mortimer Adler includes works of Great Science with other Great Works in his list at the back of “How to Read A Book.” Can’t all this knowledge be distilled, praising the Ancients for their contributions to our current understanding and leaving behind the dead ends so that all MIT undergrads have time to become familiar with the history of human ideas? Surely that would better equip them to stand on the shoulders of _all_ the giants.


Mike Padlipsky, XXIB '60 October 27, 2010 at 8:38 pm


I suppose it’s too much to hope for that you’d instead focus your energies on convincing the Powers That Be PC to bring back Foundations of Western Civilization as a core requirement, but I’d be so bold as to suggest that if you did so and happened against all expectations to prevail, the ‘Tute would be doing a much greater service for its undergraduates than the pick ’em out of a grab-bag approach in current use.

Yeah, right, that flies in the face of “Multiculturalism”. Good. Western Civ is still the basis of what passes for the common culture of the country, and indeed of much of the world. Ignorance of it should not be excused, much less promoted. It might be a bit cryptic but as I’ve been saying for years: Multiculturalism is the vogue refuge of the Uncultured.

That’s not to say other cultures should be ignored, it’s just to say they shouldn’t be indiscriminately venerated. After all, some cultures are less equal than others. Consider sending doctrinaire Cultural Egalitarians for a stay with the Jivaro in Amazonia I guess it’d be called, say, or the Korowai, from West Papua or the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea … unless they’ve all given up their former headhunting and/or cannibalism by now, of course, which would be a pity.

cheers, map


John Ross, '67, PhD '74 October 27, 2010 at 10:43 pm

I treasure those Freshman Humanities classes. They opened up a world I barely had heard of and really knew nothing about. They have had an impact on my sense of the world and how leading thinkers had understood it over three centuries. Perhaps the courses were narrowly Euro-centric, but they were a great departure point.

I love your idea on Great Science and Great Engineering, but I wish there were even the slightest chance, in this very vocationally-focused, contemporary culture, to reinsert the Freshman Humanities sequence


sohan modak October 31, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Well it all seems to come down to the initiation to the bredth and width of perception and networked contextual relationships among events, processes, objects and subjects, their prehistory, status and transformability. Like Data to Information to Knowledge to Wisdom!


Barbara Crane November 18, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Prof. Winston,

I like your idea a lot. Back in 1974, near the end of my Freshman year, and before there as many options for Humanities, I had the sense that MIT encouraged individuality to such a degree that it sometimes failed to foster community. While group-think isn’t good, there does need to be a balance, and some common ground in the humanities and sciences could be a big plus.

Similarly, my children’s high school found it very helpful to designate one book each summer to read, which was the springboard for discussions in ALL classes during the first quarter; the books were relatively easy reads, and everyone on the staff read them, too. “Lilies of the Field” is an example of one they read.

I’d love to see your idea go forward, at least for freshmen. Thanks for taking the time to share it.


Irv Plotkin January 21, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Wonderful article Professor Winston. I benefitted greatly in my career as an economist from my undergraduate studies in Elizabethan English.

One small point: in light of your comment, “now everyone is free to pursue their own specific interests in the humanities'” I would suggest a course on grammar as well. In my Brooklyn high school we learned that everyone is singular.


PHW January 27, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Good point, fixed.


Tim Chambers February 23, 2011 at 1:45 pm

I am pleased to see the comments continue to trickle in. This is an important idea that MIT should seriously consider.

But since we’re talking about grammar I’d like to offer Irv Plotkin (Dr. Plotkin, I presume?) food for thought. The feminists’ 20th century victory over the use of “man” to mean “male and female” in discourse apparently drove Prof. Winston to cop out on his correction. “Now everyone is free to pursue specific interests in the humanities” works (no pronoun) and is preferable to “now everyone is free to pursue specific interests in his/her the humanities.” However, “their” has at least *some* support as a substitute for the absurdly awkward “his/her.” I am well-aware of its unauthoritian status, but still, it’s worth noting that Wikipedia has an extensive article: . Robert Bartley wrote, “The dictionary exists to recognize new usages created by people like me.” He passed away three years before Time magazine named us person of the year. I’m guessing he would have disapproved of crowdsourcing. But isn’t that how “blog” became a Scrabble word? Language will continue to change, and it’s changing at Internet speed now.


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